Park Geun-hye’s Visit and the US-ROK Alliance
Image Credit: Ash Carter

Park Geun-hye’s Visit and the US-ROK Alliance

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South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s trip to Washington, D.C. and the summit with U.S. President Barrack Obama have generally received positive reviews. Some analysts were particularly effusive in describing the summit and relationship, but we feel that some of the exaggerated praise is unwarranted and misleading. As Stephen Haggard has noted, the summit reaffirmed many aspects of the bilateral relationship, but nothing exceptional transpired. During Park’s speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Park said that during her tenure as president, the U.S. and the ROK have resolved all of their pending sensitive bilateral issues. Many analysts and government officials argue that the alliance is stronger than ever. However, those who expected Obama and Park to adopt new and bold policy initiatives to resolve the inter-Korean stalemate and the North Korean nuclear issue are very disappointed. For example, the South Korean main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) criticized Park, asserting that the summit “didn’t achieve anything and they should have provided more creative suggestions for resolving the DPRK nuclear issue.”

With the aim of providing more in-depth analysis of the ROK-U.S. alliance, this article is the first in a series to do more than just celebrate bilateral achievements, which we acknowledge are extraordinary and generally quite positive. We do not advocate dissolution of the alliance with no alternative East Asian security architecture. However, no alliance is prefect, since every alliance is subject to the tensions that arise over fears of abandonment and fears of entrapment. We hope that a critical review of alliance and the sources of tensions is the first step in maintaining alliance cohesion to ensure that common interests and values are well served.

The Delayed Summit: Take Two

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Park’s October working visit was scheduled as a make-up after she abruptly canceled a U.S. visit in June following the sudden outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in Korea. At that time, many analysts believed there were no urgent bilateral issues that required an immediate summit, and many South Koreans were concerned about the optics of a Park-Obama meeting and whether it would live up to the prestigious symbolism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Washington in April when he met Obama and addressed a joint session of Congress. Some South Koreans even wanted Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se fired because the government had failed to prevent Abe from arranging such a high-profile visit, seemingly out of fears that Japan-U.S. relations somehow come at the expense of Seoul-Washington ties.

Seoul’s underlying insecurity and need for reassurance played out in an odd manner in the lead-up to Park’s visit. Before the summit, some analysts noted the need for Seoul to reassure Washington regarding Park’s supposed tilt toward China, particularly in light of her attendance at Beijing’s ostentatious military parade in September marking the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Media reported that Washington was displeased, specifically in regard to the message Park’s presence may have sent to Tokyo and the deleterious effect it might have on trilateral cooperation.

Thus, a senior Blue House official reportedly said that President Park’s aim would be to “reaffirm the solid condition of the South Korea-U.S. allied defense posture.” The U.S. may have appeared to want such a reaffirmation from Park, but Obama spoke directly to the issue, saying there was “no contradiction” between the ROK having good relations with the U.S. and China, simultaneously. Granted, he did follow up to say that the U.S. insists that China follow international rules and norms, and that Washington expects Seoul to “speak out on that.” Nevertheless, one was left with the impression that South Korea was more concerned with assuaging perceived U.S. displeasure over Beijing-Seoul ties, than the U.S. was in obtaining a reaffirmation from Seoul. In other words, the apprehension over PRC-ROK relations emanated from Seoul rather than Washington.

Whereas the U.S. views the relationship as firmly grounded in shared interests and common values, Seoul often desires intangible signals and symbolic gestures to steady its nerves. Washington certainly obliged during Park’s visit. Secretary of State John Kerry invoked the allies’ history of shared sacrifice and shared values, as well as common vision for the future. Following the first-ever full honors Pentagon ceremony for a South Korean president, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter reaffirmed the U.S.-ROK alliance “as the linchpin of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and across the Asia-Pacific and strongly reconfirmed the United States’ ironclad commitment to the defense of the ROK.” In similar fashion, Vice President Joe Biden “reaffirmed the unwavering U.S. commitment to deter and defend against North Korean provocations.” Finally, Obama proclaimed that “the commitment of the United States to the defense and security of the Republic of Korea will never waver.” He further noted that South Korea “plays a central role” in the U.S. rebalance to the region.

Institutional Deepening: Dynamism or Disagreement?

In addition to public statements affirming the relationship, both sides praised the deeply institutionalized nature of the alliance. In her speech at CSIS, Park noted how this institutionalization has allowed the allies to creatively resolve several pending issues over the last couple years, including an agreement on the condition-based transition of wartime operational control, negotiations for cost-sharing of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), and upgrading the alliance’s combined defense posture. More specifically, the Joint Fact Sheet released following the summit mentioned that the regular “channels of dialogue such as the foreign and defense ministers’ “2+2” meetings, the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), and the Military Committee Meeting (MCM) have been instrumental in strengthening and deepening the global strategic alliance.” However, these high-level institutional mechanisms are only the start.

Turning to the lower, working-level of the alliance structure one encounters a veritable alphabet soup of different committees and working groups, which are difficult to track even for analysts closely watching the bilateral relationship. The shifting institutional structure of the alliance has been a long-term phenomenon. The annual SCM was established in 1968 as a more regularized means for the allies to respond to the changing North Korean threat, to coordinate their respective defense tasks, and to offer South Korea an increased role in the military planning process. Even the Combined Forces Command (CFC), created in 1978, was meant to be a temporary arrangement facilitating South Korea’s transition to greater operational control as U.S. forces were drawn down under President Jimmy Carter’s troop withdrawal plan. Nevertheless, new institutional mechanisms have grown in both scope and frequency over the last decade or so. The following list is not exhaustive, but it provides most of the important security-related intuitional initiatives and recent changes:

  • In 2003, the allies created the “Future of the ROK-US Alliance Policy Initiative” (FOTA), addressing the planned realignment of USFK forces south of the Han River.
  • In 2004, at the 36th SCM, both sides created the Security Policy Initiative (SPI), in order to increase consultation on key alliance issues between SCMs.
  • In January 2006, the two sides established the Strategic Consultation for Allied Partnership (SCAP), a ministerial-level consultative mechanism.
  • In 2006, at the 38th SCM, they agreed to “expeditiously complete the transition of OPCON” after October 2009, but not later than March 2012. In addition, they upgraded the stature of the Defense Technology and Industrial Cooperation Committee (DTICC), designed to enhance ROK capabilities and allied defense integration.
  • In 2007, at the 39th SCM, they reiterated April 2012 as the OPCON transfer date, and highlighted the Strategic Transfer Plan (STP), which would help carry out the transition.
  • In 2010, at the 42nd SCM, they signed the “Guidelines for the U.S.-ROK Defense Cooperation,” reaffirming the alliance as originally conceived in the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty and upgraded in the 2009 Joint Vision Statement. In addition, they signed the “Strategic Alliance 2015,” providing a new framework for OPCON transition, which had been delayed from 2012 to 2015. They also established the Extended Deterrence Policy Committee (EDPC) to enhance deterrence effectiveness, particularly in the area of missile defense.
  • In 2011, at the 43rd SCM they created the Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue (KIDD), a senior level policy consultative channel and umbrella framework encompassing various defense dialogue mechanisms, including the SPI, EDPC, the Counter-Missiles Capability Committee (CMCC), and the Strategic Alliance 2015 working group.
  • In 2012, at the 44th SCM, the allies signed the Terms of Reference (TOR) for bilateral military space cooperation, and welcomed the launch of the U.S.-ROK Cyber Policy Consultations.
  • In 2013, at the 45th SCM, citing a “dynamic security environment,” the two sides began discussions of a “conditions-based” approach to OPCON transfer; announced completion of the ROK-US Counter-Provocation Plan; formally endorsed a bilateral “Tailored Deterrence Strategy; and decided to continue developing a comprehensive alliance counter-missile strategy to detect, defend, disrupt, and destroy missile threats.
  • In 2014, at the 46th SCM, they announced the indefinite delay of OPCON transfer until some point in the mid-2020s, decided to organize a U.S.-ROK Combined Division, and to retain U.S. counter-fire forces north of the Han River.
  • Finally, earlier this year, at the 7th KIDD meeting, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and ROK Minister of Defense Han Min-gu reached consensus, once again, on a new framework for OPCON transition, which will replace the Strategic Alliance 2015 plan. They also integrated the CMCC and EDPC into a new Deterrence Strategy Committee (DSC), which met for the first time last month at the 8th KIDD meeting.

One of the conclusions to be drawn from this substructure is that many of these committees are designed to “produce deliverables” for the MCM, SCM and bilateral summits. Moreover, this ever-changing institutional structure can be viewed from two angles. On the one hand, new working groups or committees can indicate the flexibility to deal with changing circumstances, new challenges, and expanded missions. Essentially, such restructuring is viewed as the deepening or maturation of the alliance. This is consistent with the interpretation offered in Park’s remarks and the Joint Fact Sheet. On the other hand, the proliferation of new institutional mechanisms may indicate that prior institutions were designed poorly or created to address an intractable issue. In other words, an existing arrangement can fail to resolve an ongoing bilateral issue, so new institutions are established with the hope that they can resolve preexisting problems. In this case, institutional changes do not signify dynamism so much as disagreement and the inability to resolve issues to mutual satisfaction. In practice, each institution and its evolutionary process must be examined to determine whether it falls into the first or second type. We believe that institution must be viewed on a case-by-case basis, but our intuition tells us that most of the bilateral institutions fit into the first category.

Ongoing Issues and Tensions

A long history and the deep institutionalization of the ROK-U.S. relationship mean that most bilateral problems can be managed at the working level. High-level meetings usually are highly choreographed photo-ops for senior leaders to sign “deliverables” that have been negotiated and already finalized at lower levels. Whether a free-trade agreement or a decision on wartime OPCON (operational control of ROK military forces) transfer from the U.S. to the ROK, the presidents express their final approval through declaratory policies or executive agreements announced at the conclusion of a summit. And as mentioned above, every summit will include the formal statements that are required to address the fears of abandonment or entrapment that are inevitable in every alliance.

Only when U.S.-ROK working-level intuitions fail to resolve a problem or are incapable of resolving a particular issue, does the issue rise to the agenda of a high-level meeting. During Park’s U.S. visit, three noteworthy issues were on the agenda that ordinarily would not be: cyber-security, space cooperation, and aerospace technology transfers. The importance and complexity of these issues pushed them onto the agenda for Park’s visit. And finally, we must realize that other items can slip into the summit agenda that are not released to the public because of sensitivities.

The first atypical summit agenda item, cyber-security, has become a high-priority issue because of its complexity and the difficulty in devising credible and effective deterrence strategies against cyber-attacks. Issue complexity and limited policy instruments rather than institutional inadequacies have pushed cyber-security up the organizational chain. The cyber threat is being taken more seriously given the number of cyber-attacks attributed to North Korea, including the attack against South Korea’s Nonghyŏp Bank in 2011 and the  attack against Sony Pictures last year.

Although cyber-security was a natural summit agenda item, space cooperation and aerospace technology transfers may have come as a surprise to some analysts. These issue areas are extremely complex, albeit in different ways than cyber-security. Nevertheless, we argue that the failure of lower-level bilateral institutions – rather than complexity alone – pushed these topics onto the summit agenda.

U.S.-ROK civil space cooperation, the second atypical agenda item, also was mentioned in the “Joint Vision of the Alliance” statement issued as part of the Lee-Obama summit in June 2009. However, that summit occurred only two months before the ROK’s first satellite launch attempt from the Naro Space Center, so the issue was particularly salient for President Lee. Space cooperation then returned to the lower rungs of the bilateral institutional architecture that generally keeps the alliance on autopilot.

U.S.-ROK space cooperation is underdeveloped, which is surprising given the depth of bilateral cooperation across multiple issue areas. Over the last 25 years, the ROK has steadily built up its space program, launching its first satellite in January 2013 after two failures. However, U.S. nonproliferation policies and export control regulations have limited technology transfers for the ROK’s space launch vehicle development program due to potential applications in the development of ballistic missiles. We will provide background and more details in another article on Park’s visit to the Goddard Space Flight Center and the issues surrounding the current negotiations over a new bilateral space cooperation agreement. This topic also is closely linked to the ROK’s revised missile guidelines, which we will address in another article.

The third atypical agenda item was the issue surrounding aerospace technology transfers related to the ROK’s KF-X fighter development program. In 2001, the ROK government announced its intention to build an indigenous fighter to replace aging F-4 and F-5 fighters. However, the project suffered repeated delays. In 2010, Indonesia agreed to become a partner and provide 20 percent of the funding. And in September 2014, the ROK government announced its intention to purchase 40 Lockheed Martin F-35s, with delivery expected between 2018 and 2021.  The acquisition is to be under a “foreign military sales” arrangement rather than a “direct commercial sale.” The former is a negotiated deal between two governments whereby the U.S. government works with the defense contractor, but ultimately the government must approve technology transfers and offset agreements.

In this case, the ROK selected the F-35 with the intention of acquiring 25 aerospace technologies from Lockheed Martin to support the ROK’s KF-X program, which aspires to begin aircraft production in 2025. In March, the ROK government selected Korea Aerospace Industries as the primary contractor for the KF-X project, but in April the U.S. State Department declined to approve the transfer of four sensitive technologies that are deemed critical for the project. If South Korea cannot acquire or develop the technologies for an active electronically scanned radar (AESA), electro-optical targeting pod, infrared search-and-rescue system, and a radio frequency jammer, there is speculation that the project will fail.

Apparently, the State Department notified the ROK’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) in April, but the information was not released to the public until September when the National Assembly was preparing to hold its annual oversight hearings on government agencies. The transfer denial drew accusations in Seoul of ineptitude and a cover-up. In August, Minister of Defense Han Min-gu sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter requesting the U.S. to reconsider the technology transfers, but he received no reply. Ultimately, domestic political pressures pushed Han to announce that he would ask Carter personally to reconsider during his visit with Park to the Pentagon. Carter denied the request once more but offered to establish a bilateral committee to consult and discuss cooperation in the defense technology sector. Now Seoul is scrambling to find alternative sources of the technologies, but much uncertainty remains.

In sum, this case represents an example of a new institution being created to address a pre-existing issue that has not been resolved to the satisfaction of one alliance partner. While this new institution almost certainly will not produce the result Seoul would like on this specific issue, it was a face-saving gesture that is almost costless for the U.S. It will also provide a forum for discussion that symbolically gives the ROK public reassurance that the ROK’s concerns are taken into consideration even if Seoul does not always get exactly what it wants in the relationship. As alliance management, this approach is an improvement from the days when the Pentagon would send officials to Seoul for short visits to brief Defense Ministry officials on “the way it is going to be.” The downside is that officials at the working level dislike the added burden of participating in another bilateral committee and reporting up the chain of command on their committee activities.

Moral Hazard and Future Problems

Another problem in this case is moral hazard, which enables a weaker alliance partner to exploit the stronger partner when the relationship is important to the big power’s larger geo-strategic interests. This applies in the case of the U.S. where the ROK is considered to be “front and center in America’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.” In the case of the KF-X project, moral hazard could be behind the relentless push despite no credible assurance the critical technologies would be transferred. It also could explain Seoul’s public disapproval of preliminary plans for the ROK Air Force’s F-35s to have their extensive structural repairs done at a regional site in Japan, which of course would be political dynamite in Seoul. The ROK says it will never have its aircraft serviced in Japan and reportedly is seeking a deal to have the servicing done in Australia, the second planned regional repair center, even though it is beyond the range of the aircraft and  would incur additional costs. And what if the KF-X project ultimately fails? Fighter aircraft are very expensive and difficult to develop, so the ROK seeks to enter export markets to make the project economically viable.

South Korea’s defense contractors, or ROK taxpayers, will lose their investments if the fighter project fails. But what about the security costs? The ROK Air Force needs to replace aging and obsolete aircraft for national defense reasons. But if the project fails, can Washington let the ROK Air Force fall desperately behind in a region where South Korea is “front and center in the rebalance”? The same can be said for the ROK’s ambitious plans for its Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), which it hopes to deploy by around 2020 and expand throughout the next decade. If the ROK fails in this endeavor, it is not unrealistic to expect the U.S. to provide the technology or the necessary assets to fill the gaps in KAMD. The same applies in the case of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, which are critical for combined military readiness on the peninsula. In sum, moral hazard, which is a constant structural feature of the alliance, will periodically be the source of alliance tensions – albeit still manageable – that will be manifested in particular issue areas regardless of strong common interests and shared values. The alliance is strong, but to sustain it requires the recognition of inevitable problems and cooperating to seek satisfactory solutions.

Daniel A. Pinkston, Ph.D. is visiting fellow at the Conflict Studies Center, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Clint Work is a Ph.D. student at the Jackson School of International Studies University of Washington, Seattle, U.S.A. 

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