Korea and the New Regional Paradigm

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Korea and the New Regional Paradigm

South Korea is at center stage of an emerging new paradigm in Northeast Asia.

Korea and the New Regional Paradigm
Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Are we witnessing the piecemeal construction of a new regional paradigm in Northeast Asia? Despite lengthy commentary on the differences between Europe and Asia in terms of international institutions and multilateral cooperation, as well as scholarship highlighting the abiding residues of the Cold War in East Asia, there are indications that the post-Cold War interregnum may be settling into a new regional pattern. While inter-regional comparisons shed light on this process, it is also useful to view the process from a sub-regional perspective; put differently, to view it from the inside out. The Korean peninsula, long the nexus of great power competition, provides an instructive place from which to analyze several aspects of this newly emergent regional pattern. This includes: Korea’s recent trilateral military intelligence sharing agreement with the U.S. and Japan; developments in the area of missile defense; the ROK naval base on Jeju Island; and, above all, the current predominance of a particular concept of South Korean sovereignty among the South Korean elite.

Intelligence Pact

The recent trilateral military intelligence sharing pact is as notable for what it includes as for what it excludes. The agreement is significant insofar as it is the first that allows direct and relatively unfettered intelligence sharing between the three countries on threats emanating from North Korea. However, cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo will remain indirect, channeled through their longtime U.S. ally, with whom each has a direct bilateral agreement. The indirect nature of the agreement reflects the ongoing historical and territorial disputes between Seoul and Tokyo as well as a learning curve borne of past attempts at a direct Seoul-Tokyo agreement. This was most evident in the failed GSOMIA negotiations in 2012, scuttled as a result of the South Korean public’s anger over lack of transparency as well as participation in what some viewed (rightly or wrongly) as Japan’s remilitarization.

The recent trilateral agreement is likely the result of the Park Administration getting as much as it can without opening a more publicly charged debate. According to Defense Minister Han Min-Koo, since it is a diplomatic agreement and non-binding under international law, it does not require ratification by the ROK National Assembly. The National Assembly itself was only notified of the signing several hours after it went into effect. While this brought the expected outcry from opposition lawmakers and concerned civic groups, it did not stop the agreement from being finalized on a diplomatic level. The role of the U.S. as mediator and the absence of a direct link between Seoul and Tokyo probably made the difference. Overall, the intermediated nature of the agreement clearly points in the direction of greater cooperation within a U.S.-led regional strategy, which includes exactly the kind of mediation openly promoted by Ralph Cossa in an earlier piece in The Diplomat. What this amounts to, then, is the upgrading of an old dynamic, namely, the tightening of the East Asian spokes through the American hub.

Missile Defense

Developments in missile defense on the Korean Peninsula point in a similar direction. This includes both South Korea’s existing KAMD system and the proposed U.S. deployment of a THAAD missile defense battery to the Korean Peninsula. While this is not unrelated to the military intelligence pact, it bears its own discussion. The current KAMD system is officially described as the ROK’s own indigenous and independent system. It is, in fact, neither. To quote from another piece I contributed to: “While officially outside of the U.S.-led regional ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, KAMD is made up of foreign – mainly U.S.-made – technology and it depends upon U.S. early-warning surveillance satellites to detect North Korean missile launches. Furthermore, assuming an actual North Korean missile attack against the South, U.S. missile defense assets – regardless of type and location – almost certainly would be utilized so that Washington could fulfill its alliance commitments.” The argument is further strengthened when considering the possible US deployment of a THAAD battery and its related assets, which many believe is only a matter of time.

Whether or not Chinese and Russian concerns about THAAD are genuine or cynical (and they are likely the latter) is beside the point. Robert Kelly recently described their rejection of the potential deployment as transparently weak and based on obvious technological inaccuracies. If one views the issue merely from the perspective of local defense of USFK and ROK forces, this is correct. But it does not exist in this vacuum. The likely THAAD deployment and its high-end hardware put China’s strategic coastal regions well within focus. Again, this is itself unremarkable when considering the U.S. already possesses such capabilities, as well as the fact that it only marginally improves U.S. defense against Chinese missiles and certainly not against its second strike capabilities. However, when viewed within the larger trend it creates a different perception, a perception that in turn produces the very outcomes many U.S. officials and U.S. analysts say are not in play. Since 2010, the U.S. has been openly committed to expanding its ballistic missile defense posture in the region. This includes (but is not limited to): its Guam-based THAAD battery; two X-band radars in Japan and the deployment there of two more Aegis-equipped ballistic-missile defense ships by 2017; and a potential THAAD upgrade in Japan. Thus, the likely U.S. deployment of a THAAD battery to South Korea builds on these other significant assets in the region, bolstering its regional missile defense system and overall military capabilities. Moreover, the inherent interoperability of the technology and larger system itself, not to mention basic military preparedness, calls for working integration of the different parts.  Japan has formally been a part of the U.S. regional system since 2006. South Korea, whether it openly joins or not, is essentially a treaty-bound entrant, and the potential THAAD deployment (as well as the trilateral military pact) only strengthens this de facto truth and the perception thereof.


This brings us to another often dismissed, but no less important issue, the ROK’s Jeju Multipurpose port complex. One need not adhere to the activists’ line regarding the base to raise questions about its implications. According to the ROK Defense Ministry, considering the nature of the ROK’s economic structure (read: its dependence on trade and imported crude oil) the maritime lines around Jeju Island are “life lines” to the country. The only other naval base providing defense of the ROK’s southwestern waters is at Mokpo, but the sea lanes and depth of water near it are too narrow and shallow to provide for 1,000+ ton naval ships. The Jeju complex will accommodate them. This includes the ROK Navy’s several Aegis-equipped destroyers. Interestingly, arms control specialist Jeffrey Lewis noted in 2011 that these would be best suited for defense against Chinese or North Korean missiles fired at Japan, but they “won’t provide much defense for South Korea against North Korean missiles,” as very few of these would rise high enough on their way to the South to give the destroyers a shot. North Korea has since increased the loft of its missiles, but the general point remains. Again, these destroyers are themselves crucial assets in South Korea’s missile defense system, which, for the very clear reasons described above, is technologically, operationally, and, by extension, strategically bound with the U.S. presence. The Mutual Defense Treaty underscores the point.

The Jeju complex is undoubtedly an exclusively ROK base and the ROK MND is most likely genuine when it says it is open to port calls from the Americans and Chinese alike. However, the sentiment voiced by retired navy vice admiral, Yun Yon, remains: “We may do business with the Chinese, but still it’s the Americans we should do security with.” Andrew Yeo highlighted the point well in a piece in The Diplomat, noting that although the Jeju base is certainly not a strategic outpost of the U.S. it does align with U.S. strategic interests in the region. Yeo writes:  “After all, the emerging U.S. force posture in the region is aimed at securing access to allied bases rather than committing to any large-scale, permanent ones. And, given the importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance to South Korea, there is no reason to believe that Seoul would reject a request for port access.” The U.S. Department of Defense has openly proclaimed its “substantial and historic shift” of 60 percent of its naval assets to the Asia-Pacific as part of the “rebalance” to the region. Considering the multiple U.S.-ROK joint naval exercises, which include multiple U.S. and ROK Aegis-destroyers, as well as trilateral US-Japan-Korea search and rescue exercises that have already occurred in waters around Jeju, it would be foolish (if not absurd) to assume the link between U.S. interests and strategy and the Jeju complex itself will not continue to grow. As Yeo noted (channeling Robert Jervis), “state behavior in international relations is often driven by (mis) perceptions.” The truth of South Korean claims regarding the independence and defensive nature of the Jeju complex notwithstanding, the perception of these developments, embedded as they are within larger regional trends, amounts to a de facto, if piecemeal, hardening of lines.

South Korea Sovereignty

This leads to the final point, which is likely the most consequential. The formation of a new regional paradigm is itself bound to a particular mentality of South Korean sovereignty among certain Korean elites. This involves certain core assumptions about South Korea’s place in the world, about North Korea, and about its relationship with the United States. These assumptions are themselves constituted by certain key factors: a deep awareness of the abiding structural and geographic constraints faced by South Korea as a small country surrounded by larger powers; a deep, historical animosity toward the North Korean regime as the illegitimate, intra-ethnic Other that not only threatens the survival of South Korea as a political entity, but is responsible for the fractured image of the Korean nation; and longstanding and ongoing dependence on the U.S. and the US-ROK alliance as the ultimate guarantor of South Korean security. The decision last October to indefinitely delay the transfer of the wartime control (OPCON) of South Korea’s armed forces, and more specifically the process that led to this outcome, offers insight into the importance of this mentality. In fact, the OPCON debate and process provides an interesting case study into multiple competing mentalities of South Korean sovereignty. For the present purpose, though, only a broad and consequently simplistic review is possible.

The official reason given for the indefinite delay was the need to maintain a strong US-ROK combined defense posture and further bolster South Korean capabilities, particularly its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities as well as the overall interoperability of its armed forces, in the face of a “an evolving security environment in the region,” including the asymmetric threat and provocations from the North. These reasons are uncontroversial and, as Steven Denney wrote in The Diplomat, “quite valid.” Nevertheless, these stark materialist, threat-based variables did not create a new approach to defense policy among certain South Korean elites so much as strengthen an already existing one. The initial context and subsequent process surrounding the OPCON transfer sheds light on this claim.

U.S. and ROK officials had begun discussing wartime OPCON transfer in 2002, and President Roh Moo-hyun enthusiastically pushed the discussion forward upon entering office in 2003. The OPCON policy was conceived during a time of ongoing and notable shifts. First, the U.S. was significantly realigning its global defense posture, with direct consequences for the size and orientation of United States Forces Korea. Ironically, these U.S. moves, based on the notions of operational and strategic flexibility, simultaneously stoked fears of abandonment and entrapment. On the one hand, more traditional ROK elites viewed these changes as prelude to disengagement and chastised the Roh administration for its mismanagement of the alliance. On the other hand, officials in the Roh administration and elements among the South Korean left perceived U.S. moves as opening the possibility for more aggressive and unilateral U.S. policies toward North Korea, as USFK forces would no longer be situated in near-front line positions, or the possible deployment of USFK forces to out-or-area conflicts (i.e. Taiwan) thus dragging the ROK into the fight.

Second, many perceived the Roh administration as impetuous toward South Korea’s longtime ally, soft toward North Korea, and possessed of a misguided notion of South Korea’s sovereignty and place in the world. More traditional political and defense elites saw this manifest in several ways. Roh’s attempt to do away with the “main enemy” designation for North Korea was roundly denounced as an affront to the ROK military and ROK national history. Moreover, Roh’s discussion of South Korea as a “balancer” and the need for self-reliant defense appeared dismissive of structural, historical, and budgetary realities as well as disrespectful of the U.S. as an ally. Roh’s thinking was an outgrowth of his time as a member of the 386 Generation. Consequently, he conceived of the OPCON transfer in terms of South Korea’s independent sovereignty. Speaking to Yonhap News Agency in 2006 Roh stated: “Korea is the sole country that does not have complete…(OPCON) of its own troops. The country is the 11th-largest economic powerhouse and has the sixth-largest military forces but it does not have wartime OPCON. OPCON is the basis of self-reliant national defense. The point is that self-reliant national defense is the essence of sovereignty for any nation.” The following year, he framed the return of full OPCON as a means of regaining national sovereignty and pride by “overcoming the nation’s psychological dependence on the United States.” This mentality was roundly denounced by conservative elements within South Korea.

In 2005, speaking in the National Assembly as the then GNP Chairman, Park Geun-hye criticized Roh’s balancer concept and misguided view of South Korea’s sovereignty. She stated: “At present, China, Japan, and Russia, as well as North Korea, do not recognize South Korea as a balancer in the region. Under the circumstances, any more isolation outside the framework of the Korea-U.S. alliance would not serve Korea’s interests.” Her view was clear. South Korean sovereignty should not be viewed independent of but rather affirmed within the U.S.-ROK alliance. For more traditional elements, Roh’s mentality and the OPCON policy were seen as a prelude to the dissolution of the alliance and withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea. This created unprecedented realities, which they felt South Korea was unprepared to face. As a result, the retention of the U.S.-led combined command structure was essential to maintaining the alliance and, by extension, South Korean security. These elite elements and their own mentality of South Korean sovereignty became increasingly operative with the 2009 election of Lee Myung-bak.

Delaying or even overturning OPCON transition became a quest for conservative South Korean legislators and former military officials, as well as both the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations. These traditional South Korean elites viewed the policy as a naïve, ideologically driven decision that ignored South Korea’s need for U.S. protection. In June 2010, following the North Korean nuclear test in April 2009 and the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010, Lee was able to get U.S. President Barack Obama to agree to a delay of the original transfer date. The new date was moved from 2012 to December 2015. The Yeonpyeong Island shelling in November later the same year appeared to strengthen the decision. After North Korea’s long-range missile test in December 2012 and third nuclear test in February 2013, South Korean officials began speaking of the need for another delay. During his visit to Seoul in April 2014, President Obama once again stated the deadline could be reconsidered. In October 2014, the decision was made to indefinitely delay the transfer altogether. Thus, a shifting external structure and a process of emergent threat reinforced and reconstituted existent mentalities, further supporting the traditional elite’s contestation of OPCON transfer. Where to from here?

New Regional Paradigm           

The issues and trends analyzed above, combined with a more traditional mentality of South Korean sovereignty, has led to the gradual settling in of a new regional paradigm. This essay consciously stresses the view from Korea of this broader regional process, in particular how South Korea is increasingly embedded within a larger and tightening U.S. strategic framework; with the U.S. as the mediator, as the purveyor of key assets and fundamental security, and as the external balancer transferring more and more advanced forces to the region. This is not to say things cannot or will not change. History does not stand still. While South Korean public opinion is generally favorable toward the U.S.-ROK alliance and the U.S. itself, it also reflects a keen awareness of the deeper systemic changes taking place, namely, China’s potential rise to relative economic and strategic predominance in the coming decades. These potential changes as well as shifting conceptions of Korean sovereignty could disrupt the fledgling paradigm that this piece contends is taking shape.

The Cold War is long over. South Korea is highly developed and democratic, and rightfully proud of its many accomplishments. However, structural and ideational processes are reinforcing longstanding elements of its historically constrained position. Notably absent from this discussion has been the role played by Chinese actions and rationales. These are undoubtedly crucial, but to argue that only they (and/or the North Koreans) drive the hardening of lines is dismissive of the inherently reciprocal, mutually constituted nature of state interaction. The 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy states openly that U.S. military power “must remain dominant in every domain,” that U.S. power is “indispensible,” and that the U.S. has the “opportunity – and obligation – to lead the way in reinforcing, shaping, and where appropriate, creating” the patterns of interaction in the international system. Regardless of intent, regardless of whether or not American power is what it proclaims itself to be (namely, a force for good in the world), the effect of such language and beliefs, as well as the very real actions that follow from them, is leading ever so gradually to a new paradigm with Korea at center stage.

Clint Work is a Seattle-based writer who received his M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations and is pursuing his Ph.D. at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His focus is Northeast Asian international relations, history and political economy, U.S. foreign policy, and competing perspectives of South Korean sovereignty.