Troubling signs in US-South Korea alliance

On Wednesday, Washington’s and Seoul’s defense chiefs held their 50th Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), an annual comprehensive defense dialogue between the two countries. Apposite to a milestone anniversary year, the event was marked with ceremony and gravitas — a full honor guard tribute involving the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Air Force, as well as a 19-gun salute. Perhaps in an effort to downplay the perceived recent rift between the allies over their handling of North Korea, South Korean media described the service as a “rare event” that underscored the importance Washington attaches to its longtime ally in Northeast Asia.

The ceremony checked off, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Seoul’s newly appointed Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo — who just assumed office in late September — proceeded to the stickier, uncomfortable yet inevitable topics: the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON), the suspension of a major U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) joint air drill, and the implementation of the inter-Korean military agreement inked in September.

{mosads}A strategic guideline called “Alliance Guiding Principles” now lays out how the U.S.-ROK combined defense mechanisms will operate post-OPCON transfer. Under this scenario, a South Korean four-star general will lead the combined forces; the U.S. general will assume a deputy commander role. South Korea’s news agency has construed this as demonstrative of the solidarity of the U.S.-ROK alliance and an “exception” to Washington’s long-held adherence to Pershing’s principle that the U.S. forces never give command to other soldiers. Seoul remains hopeful that upon verification of its initial and full operational capabilities and full mission capabilities, the two sides can agree to OPCON transfer by the early 2020s. U.S. troops will remain stationed in Seoul, however.

Additionally, Washington and Seoul will suspend the massive Vigilant Ace air exercise, originally slated for December. The drills could be perceived as a provocation to North Korea’s communist Kim Jong Un regime, which has yet to make a credible step toward denuclearization. Supporters of this decision argue for “less-threatening methods” — virtual computer simulations given preference over physical exercises.

As for the inter-Korean military agreement, Washington previously expressed consternation over the speed of cooperation between the militaries of Seoul and Pyongyang despite the lack of movement on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) denuclearization promise. Recently, the two Koreas agreed to disarm the Joint Security Area (JSA), withdraw 11 guard posts by November on a “trial basis,” and create buffer zones along land and sea borders and a no-fly zone — all before the Kim regime even articulated how and when it will hold up its end of agreements from the Panmunjom, Singapore and Pyongyang summits.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the United States and South Korea agreed, in broad terms, to strengthen cooperation in the process to implement the inter-Korean military agreement.

The “rare” treatment and warm welcome received by the South Korean delegation belie the reality of the state of U.S.-ROK relations. The pomp and ceremony provide pretext for Seoul to paint a rosy picture of its relations with Washington. After all, there is no clear rift — the two countries still vow to work together on critical issues, particularly on efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. Additionally, Secretary Mattis dismissed concerns of any adverse impact the new agreement may have on the alliance’s defense capabilities, clarifying that it will not be a total suspension of all collaboration and military exercises. So what’s there to worry about?

Recall that earlier this week, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul — instead of reaching out to its counterparts in the Blue House or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — contacted directly the four South Korean conglomerates (Samsung, Hyundai, SK and LG) whose executives accompanied President Moon Jae-in on his September trip to Pyongyang to ascertain the status of cooperation projects discussed during meetings with North Korean officials. Some observers say that Washington may be trying to speed up the U.S.-South Korea policy coordination ahead of Trump-Kim talks slated for early next year.

More critically, South Korea perceives the call as an indirect but stern warning from the U.S. government that these companies could be the target of a secondary boycott if they were to violate U.S. sanctions on North Korea.

Of course, the calls could merely have been gentle reminders of the financial and reputational costs of getting involved with North Korea in violation of U.S. sanctions. But if Washington had not suspected ambiguity or dubiousness on Seoul’s part, communications likely would have been conducted through usual, formal channels with the South Korean government.

Trust between the United States and South Korea appears to be melting away. Whereas the United States has been calling for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program as a condition to sanctions-easing and other concessions, South Korea consistently has pressed Washington for greater flexibility toward the North. The Moon administration is a key proponent of easing tensions with North Korea through trust-building measures and increased cooperation. Moon’s recent trip to Europe was seen largely as a tour to rally European countries’ support behind a peace declaration and the easing of sanctions against the Kim regime.

For Washington, a peace declaration and sanctions-easing are conditional upon North Korea’s declaration of its nuclear facilities and stockpiles, allowing inspectors on nuclear testing sites, or a timeline of disarming its nuclear program.

When considered within the broader contours of U.S.-ROK relations and the situation with North Korea, the SCM makes us second-guess the state of our alliance with South Korea. Washington appears to be taking the steps to issue a respectful but firm warning to Seoul about the consequences of moving too quickly, too rashly with North Korea without coordinating with the United States. It’s unclear whether Seoul is taking these warnings seriously, or has a fail-proof backup plan in the event of a fallout with an ally that, up until the Moon administration, has been considered one of the bedrocks of Seoul’s foreign policy.

This backup plan’s error rate has got to be close to zero.

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime’s leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program. Follow her on Twitter @mllesookim.

Tags inter-Korean agreements James Mattis Kim Jong-un Moon Jae-in North Korea–South Korea relations South Korea–United States relations

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