U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is on a Pacific tour. Last week, Carter visited Alaska, where he emphasized the state’s importance to the United States’ Asia and Arctic policies. Three days ago, Carter flew to South Korea for talks with his local counterpart, Han Min-Koo. Yesterday, he continued to Malaysia to participate in the ASEAN Defense Ministers-plus (ADMM+) meeting.
The topics discussed between Carter and Han were unsurprisingly focused on North Korea, and included Pyongyang’s nuclear, conventional, and cyber capabilities. Both ministers reaffirmed their commitment to a denuclearized peninsula, adding that the policy of “zero tolerance” towards future nuclear tests or long-range missile launches is still very much in effect. They specifically voiced “grave concern” over strong hints from North Korea that it is preparing a long-range rocket launch in violation of U.S. resolutions.
Carter met Han in Seoul during an annual security meeting for the two allies to assess their military cooperation. Carter told reporters they “spoke candidly” about nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, cyber- and conventional military threats from North Korea, which they described as a risk to peace and security beyond the Korean Peninsula. According to both Carter and Han, U.S.-South Korean relations are at an “’all-time high’… and remain ironclad.”
Tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul have been high since this August. Following the maiming of two South Korean servicemen by a North Korean landmine, South Korea activated several large propaganda loudspeakers aimed at North Korean soldiers and civilians across the DMZ. A short artillery exchange took place as a result, in which no one was injured or killed. However, this occurred during a planned U.S.-South Korea military exercise and has since kept relations between Seoul and Pyongyang frozen.
An important topic for the two ministers is OPCON (Operational Control). In case of a new conflict with Pyongyang, the U.S. is to assume operational command of the South Korean military in addition to the 28,000 U.S. troops deployed on the peninsula. This has been the official policy since the U.S. took over operational control during the Korean War. The two states have agreed in principle to transfer this responsibility to the South Korean military, conditional of several criteria. As previously reported by the Diplomat, this agreement calls “for the transfer of operational control to be ‘conditions based,’ meaning the move has been postponed indefinitely.” The delay is meant to give South Korea time to develop “the core military capabilities needed for the OPCON transfer to take place by mid-2020.”
The details of the criteria for the transfer of OPCON have remained diffuse. However, following the meeting between Carter and Han, some of these have been revealed. Carter specifically mentioned that Seoul has to improve its intelligence and counter-artillery capabilities before the OPCON-transfer can take place.
By then, South Korea will have finished the installation of its indigenous defense systems, Kill Chain and Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD). Han reiterated the defense system plans, saying that they will be critical military capabilities for responding to North Korean nuclear and missile threats and interoperable with the U.S. defense system. Until then, the U.S. will also retain its counter-artillery forces close to the inter-Korean border, referring to the U.S. Force Korea’s 210th Field Artillery Brigade based right below the DMZ.
Another important topic of discussion is North Korea’s cyber-capabilities. South Korea and the United States have accused Pyongyang of being behind several attacks targeting financial institutions, government sites. and media. This notably included a large-scale attack against three South Korean TV-stations in 2013, as well as the hacking of Sony Pictures following the release of The Interview, a satirical comedy about Kim Jong-un.
Yesterday, Carter continued to Kuala Lumpur, where he is participating in the ASEAN-plus Defense Ministers’ meeting. Here, China’s quarrel with its neighbors and the United States’ recent freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea is likely to be an important issue.
The stops on Carter’s Pacific tour are telling. The Arctic is a crucial area for many Asian states (notably China, who recently deployed a squadron of warships to the Bering Straits). South Korea remains a key U.S. ally in the region and is a bulwark against North Korean aggression. The South China Sea involves many states that are an important part of the current and future U.S. military presence in the area.
While the individual meetings are interesting in themselves, Carter’s tour is probably intended to send a signal that despite distractions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” is still a top priority.