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Reminding South Korea Who is Boss: Biden’s Enforcers Pay a Visit

Photograph Source: Department of Defense Archive – CC BY-SA 4.0

In a Washington Post opinion piece, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spelled out their objectives in visiting Japan, South Korea, and India. “The United States is now making a big push to revitalize our ties with friends and partners,” they wrote. The nature of those relationships, as perceived by Washington, is the subordination of Asian nations as junior partners in an anti-China coalition. “Our alliances are what our military calls ‘force multipliers,’ Blinken and Austin explain. “Our combined power makes us stronger when we must push back against China’s aggression and threats.” [1]

That approach found a receptive audience in meetings with Japanese officials, who recognize it as offering a path to remilitarization. Results in South Korea were more ambiguous. By a substantial margin, China is South Korea’s primary trading partner, and relations between the two nations are generally solid. South Korea has no rational reason to join Washington’s fanatical anti-China campaign, no matter how much pressure the United States applies. A difference of opinion between Washington’s envoys and South Korean officials can be inferred by comparing the joint U.S.-Japan statement with South Korea’s, as only the latter lacked China-bashing verbiage.

Blinken and Austin appear to have been more successful in reminding South Korean officials that no independent action should be taken to improve inter-Korean relations and in making it understood that Washington calls the shots. The two sides agreed to establish a “working-level diplomatic dialogue” process to align policy regarding North Korea and other matters. [2]In their joint statement, Korean and American officials affirmed that their two nations “are closely coordinating on all issues related to the Korean Peninsula” and that “these issues should be addressed through a fully-coordinated strategy toward North Korea.” [3]

Not that Blinken and Austin found their position on North Korea a hard sell. Although peace and improved inter-Korean relations matter deeply to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, he attaches more importance to the military alliance with the United States. In an article published at the end of 2019, Moon argued, “No matter how desperately peace is desired, Korea cannot afford to race ahead on its own. It has counterparts and must move within the international order.” Support from the “international community” is needed, Moon claims, while using the standard term signifying the several thousand people at the top rungs of power in the United States and excluding the nearly eight billion people in the rest of the world’s population. [4] Moon’s statement is consistent with other comments he has made, such as in his New Year’s address, where he stated, “If we can draw support from the international community in the process,” then the door to peace will “open wide.” [5] No role there for South Korea, other than as supplicant.

Joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises were well underway during Bliken’s and Austin’s time in Seoul. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, war games were conducted via computer simulation. Concurrently, the U.S. deployed F-22 Raptor stealth fighters to participate in joint exercises with the Japanese military. [6] According to a South Korean military official, “The deployment is significant as an alert to North Korea as well as deterrence to China, given F-22s’ operational radius and performance.” [7]

None of this went unnoticed in Pyongyang. Kim Yo Jong, Vice Department Director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, dismissed South Korean claims that the military exercises are defensive. While no details of the drilled scenarios have been publicly released, past war games customarily practiced the bombing and invasion of North Korea as well as sending commando teams into the north to assassinate government officials. There is no reason to suppose that the latest exercises pose a unique exception. Kim called the “launching of a war game against” her nation “a serious challenge” and pointed out that the “essence and nature of the drills” never changes, regardless of what form they take. [8]

It was not the first time that Pyongyang has expressed frustration over the discrepancy between Moon’s rhetoric on inter-Korean relations and his actions. Similar complaints were raised last June. By hitching its wagon to the U.S. military, the Moon administration is seriously straining ties with the north. “War drill and hostility can never go with dialogue and cooperation,” Kim stated. If South Korean authorities “persist in hostile acts” that deny dialogue and “destroy the foundation of trust through ceaseless war games,” then Pyongyang may abrogate some of the inter-Korean agreements it had signed. [9]

Some aspects of the Panmunjom Declaration, signed on April 27, 2018 by Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un, are already a dead letter. Certainly, the affirmation of “the principle of determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord” has never been put into practice, as the Moon administration is unwilling to act without U.S. permission. Nor have any “practical steps” been adopted to connect and modernize rail and road connections or steps been taken to “actively implement” inter-Korean economic agreements signed in 2004. [10] After all, Washington would not approve.

“Pyongyang is pressing Seoul not to talk nonsense in the upcoming meeting with Blinken and Austin,” observed Kim Il-gi, a senior researcher at South Korea’s Institute for National Security Strategy. “And the message goes to the U.S., as well.” [11] A message, one cannot help noting, that inevitably fell on deaf ears.

The United States, too, is hoping for a change in South Korea’s approach, albeit in a decidedly different direction than that sought by North Korea. A recent report by the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security is typical of the recommendations being churned out by Washington think tanks. “The Republic of Korea and the United States should broaden their military alliance into a national security alliance in order to more effectively deal with the challenges and opportunities of this new era,” it states. Predictably, the Center lists China as the top challenge and argues that the U.S.-South Korea alliance “must be prepared to continue to deter and dissuade” China from “considering any further aggression.” South Korea ought to “prioritize security cooperation” with Southeast Asian nations “on behalf of the alliance,” the Center argues. Furthermore, “as NATO goes global in its approach in response to the challenges posed by China…NATO’s partnership with the Republic of Korea will increase in importance.” [12]

The Scowcroft Center recognizes that reliance on Chinese trade presents a roadblock in persuading South Korea to join Washington’s anti-China campaign. What South Koreans may happen to want is not a question the Center ever troubles itself with, other than to bemoan that it is necessary to “avoid forcing the Republic of Korea to make explicit, public choices in disputes between the United States and China.”

But less overtly, South Korea can be slowly moved into that position. The Center expects South Korea to join U.S. “efforts to reform international rules and institutions,” a euphemism for American plans to cut China off from much of its international trade.  Several measures are recommended that South Korea “should” adopt to align its economy with U.S. regional goals. In addition, to chip away at Chinese-Korean trade, “The Republic of Korea should join the US efforts to diversify its supply chains” and avoid “over-reliance on a single country.” [13] The essential task for South Korea, the Center insists, is that “much more must be done to reduce dependence on Chinese supply chains and protect key industries from” what it laughably calls “predatory Chinese practices.” Washington expects nations it regards as subordinates, such as South Korea, to act as pawns in maintaining American hegemony against challengers such as China.

Despite North Korea’s concerns, it appears that a resumption of full-scale military exercises on the Korean Peninsula may be on the horizon. Currently, the United States holds operational control (OPCON) over South Korean military forces in wartime. The Moon administration hopes to regain OPCON before the expiration of its term in office. Still, the key condition for doing so is completing full-scale live-action military drills to evaluate the concept. [14] According to a South Korean military source, Seoul wants to test Full Operational Capability (FOC) with a full-scale exercise in the second half of this year. [15] A successful assessment would leave only one official step, Full Mission Capability (FMC), to be completed before OPCON transfer could proceed.

Transfer of OPCON is long overdue, but predicating progress toward that decision on a resumption of live-action drills can be counted on to place a further strain on inter-Korean relations, which no doubt Washington regards as a bonus. Indeed, roiling inter-Korean waters may be the only result produced by full-scale military exercises. Robert Abrams, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) commander, maintains that it is not enough for Seoul to pass the three official assessment stages; it would have to meet an additional 26 requirements. [16] It is a formula perfectly calculated to compel South Korea to resume live military drills while imposing endless conditions that will continually postpone OPCON transfer so that it may never take place.

Currently, relations between South Korea and Japan are at a low point over the unresolved issue of Imperial Japan’s “comfort women” system of sexual slavery, as well as Japanese trade restrictions on South Korea. The rift in relations is problematic for Washington, as it wishes to assign both nations the key role among junior partners in confronting China. As a U.S. State Department fact sheet explains, in “working to strengthen America’s relationships with our allies…[n]o relationship is more important than that between Japan and the Republic of Korea.” [17] Moon promised Blinken he would continue to reach out and try to resolve disputes with Japan. [18] However, previous conciliatory messages sent from South Korea to Japan since the Yoshihide Suga administration’s inauguration have gone unanswered. [19]

The Biden administration is currently undertaking a review to determine details of its North Korea policy, and it has attempted to contact North Korean officials through various channels. The content of the messages is not publicly known, but the Biden administration has indicated in general an intention to add other demands along with that of denuclearization. Piling on demands is not a promising approach for initiating dialogue.

North Korea chose not to respond to the Biden administration’s attempts at contact. In a statement issued during Blinken’s and Austin’s stay in Seoul, North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui explained that no communication or dialogue “of any kind can be possible unless the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy.” She took due note of the Biden administration’s harsh rhetoric and military activities aimed against North Korea. What North Korea is asking for is a change of tone, one that would be conducive for establishing dialogue “on an equal basis.” [20]

A more diplomatic attitude would seem not to be a tall order, but it is constitutionally foreign to the Washington establishment’s nature. It can be anticipated that President Moon may urge Biden to soften the administration’s public comments to encourage a resumption of dialogue. Whether anyone in Washington will be listening is another matter. When U.S. policymakers talk about South Korea and the United States needing to closely coordinate North Korea policy, what they have in mind is a one-way process in which the U.S. decides, and South Korea follows. On China, Seoul can expect to be subjected to mounting pressure to reduce trade, thereby providing Washington with more leverage in attempting to bully it into joining the belligerent U.S.-led anti-China alliance. The one certainty is that respect for South Korean sovereignty is not in the cards.

Notes.

[1] Antony J. Blinken and Lloyd J. Austin III, “America’s Partnerships Are ‘Force Multipliers’ in the World,” Washington Post, March 14, 2021.

[2] “S. Korea, U.S. to Launch New Working-level Policy Dialogue Aimed at Cementing Alliance,” Yonhap, March 18, 2021.

[3] “Full Text of Joint Statement of 2021 S. Korea-U.S. foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting,” Yonhap, March 18, 2021.

[4] https://english1.president.go.kr/Media/Interviews/541

[5] https://english1.president.go.kr/BriefingSpeeches/Speeches/931

[6] Nick Wilson, “Hawaii-based F-22s Land at MCAS Iwakuni to Support DFE Concept,” Pacific Air Forces, March 16, 2021.

[7] Sang-ho Yun, “U.S. Deploys F-21 [sic] Raptors in Japan,” Dong-A Ilbo, March 18, 2021.

[8] “It Will be Hard to See Again Spring Days Three Years Ago,” KCNA, March 16, 2021.

[9] “It Will be Hard to See Again Spring Days Three Years Ago,” KCNA, March 16, 2021.

[10] Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, April 27, 2018.

[11] Won-gi Jung, “South Korea Defends Military Exercises After Kim Yo Jong Threatens Retaliation,” NK News, March 16, 2021.

[12] https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/the-future-of-the-us-rok-security-alliance/

[13] https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/the-future-of-the-us-rok-security-alliance/

[14] Mitch Shin, “South Korea, US to Prepare to Conduct Joint Military Exercise,” The Diplomat, March 2, 2021.

[15] Elizabeth Shim, “Reports: U.S., South Korea to Commence Scaled-down Military Exercises,” UPI, March 4, 2021.

[16] Lee Chul-jae, Kim Sang-jin, Shim Kyu-seok, “Opcon Timing Dashes Moon’s Hope for Transfer,” JoongAng Ilbo, January 24, 2021.

[17] https://www.state.gov/reaffirming-the-unbreakable-u-s-japan-alliance/

[18] Lee4 Chi-dong, “Moon Vows Efforts to Improve Japan Ties in Talks with Biden Aides,” Yonhap, March 18, 2021.

[19] Sarah Kim, “U.S. Working as Middleman to Help Korea-Japan Relations,” JoongAng Ilbo, March 15, 2021.

[20] “Statement of First Vice Foreign Minister of DPRK,” KCNA, March 18, 2021.

Gregory Elich is a Korea Policy Institute associate and on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute. He is a member of the Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea, a columnist for Voice of the People, and one of the co-authors of Killing Democracy: CIA and Pentagon Operations in the Post-Soviet Period, published in the Russian language. He is also a member of the Task Force to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific. His website is https://gregoryelich.org  Follow him on Twitter at @GregoryElich.  

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