The 49th Republic of Korea-United States Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) and 42nd Military Committee Meeting (MCM) were held in Seoul over the weekend. The annual meetings bring together ROK and U.S. defense and military chiefs, and offer both sides the opportunity to share their view of recent events on and around the Korean Peninsula and chart future plans for the alliance. At Friday’s MCM, General Joseph Dunford, U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and his Korean counterpart, General Jeong Kyeong-doo, chairman of the ROK JCS, led their respective delegations. On Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and ROK Defense Minister Song Young-moo presided over the SCM.
The SCM was first established in 1968 at the request of Seoul in order to further institutionalize cooperation and communication between the allies. At the 10th SCM in July 1977, they decided to establish the MCM, whose creation coincided with and helped supervise the establishment of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) and was also meant to facilitate planning for troop withdrawals under then-President Jimmy Carter. In general terms, the MCM issues operational directives and guidelines to the CFC, and the SCM is the mechanism by which the National Command and Military Authorities (NCMA) develop and convey strategic guidelines to the Military Committee.
This year’s meetings occurred at a particularly fraught moment, following Pyongyang’s recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests, and amidst unusually bellicose rhetoric from both President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. In addition, Trump will make his first visit to Seoul next week. Several aspects of the SCM are worth highlighting.
Diplomacy “the Most Preferred Path” But…
In the 49th ROK-U.S. Joint Communique and press remarks following the SCM, both sides reiterated their preference for a diplomatic solution to the ongoing crisis with North Korea, and said a robust combined defense was crucial to such an approach. However, Mattis once again reiterated that the military option remains on the table: “Make no mistake — any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated. And any use of nuclear weapons by the North will be met with a massive military response that is both effective and overwhelming.” Mattis’ remarks, if seemingly forceful, represent longstanding U.S. policy. Still, they possess added significance in the current context.
The reaffirmation of the U.S. commitment to uphold extended deterrence for the ROK, using the full range of U.S. capabilities, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella, is not new. Nonetheless, it comes at a time of increased discussion within Seoul and Tokyo about developing their own nuclear option in the face of Pyongyang’s qualitatively new capabilities. While South Korean President Moon Jae-in has announced otherwise, conversations persist. In short, although both allies have long expressed uncertainty regarding the credibility of the U.S. commitment, Pyongyang’s potential ability to place a warhead in Seattle adds a fundamentally new dynamic to their abandonment fears. According to this line of thought, like the British and French during the Cold War, Seoul and Tokyo may be prone to wonder if the United States might hesitate to honor its commitment when faced with this reality.
Consequently, both Mattis and Song highlighted the recent dispatch of U.S. strategic assets and agreed to expand rotational deployments of the same. Moreover, they agreed to bolster ROK capabilities through new missile guidelines (permitting larger payloads on South Korean missiles) and the acquisition of highly advanced U.S. military assets. Additional questions were raised regarding the possible return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. Yet both defense officials stated the subject was not discussed, and Song (despite earlier comments) stressed the alliance already possesses “sufficient means” to respond to a North Korean nuclear attack. Mattis concurred.
OPCON: Expeditious but Steady
Another important issue discussed was the transfer of the wartime operational control (OPCON) of the ROK military. Both sides pledged to make joint efforts to “implement steadily the decision by President Trump and President Moon in June 2017 to enable the expeditious conditions-based” transfer of OPCON, a stance reiterated by Moon in a September 28 address. Nevertheless, the Joint Communique’s language and Song’s own remarks indicate that, despite concerns about moving too fast, the process will be deliberate.
Song said: “We did not mean to move up the timeline in a hurry, but create conditions for the transfer as quickly as possible and take back operational control in time. Even when we take back operational control, our alliance will remain rock solid.” As part of the process, the defense chiefs were updated on the draft organization of the “future Combined Forces Command” from the MCM, will continue to refine it, and will reexamine and update the existing Conditions-based OPCON Transition Plan (COTP) by the 50th SCM next year.
A necessary condition for OPCON transition is South Korea’s acquisition of critical capabilities, including the larger missile payloads and advanced U.S. military technology noted above, as well as further development of its C4ISR capabilities and Kill Chain preemptive defense and Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) systems. Claims for greater ROK defense independence notwithstanding, these capabilities and systems, states the Joint Communique, “enhance the ROK-U.S. combined defense posture” and “are to be interoperable with” preexisting alliance systems, including the controversial U.S.-deployed THAAD system. Moreover, all signs indicate the ROK-led Future Alliance Command (which will replace the CFC) will remain a combined command arrangement. This contrasts with previous plans for two separate, complementary commands, developed under Moon’s progressive predecessor, President Roh Moo-hyun.
Lastly, beyond their discussions of bilateral, combined defense planning, the SCM participants cited existing U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation and called for tightening such efforts. This comes on the heals of last week’s 9th Trilateral Defense Ministerial Meeting in Clark, Philippines and the trilateral missile warning naval exercises conducted near ROK and Japanese waters. The training exercises, the fifth of their kind since June 2016 and the first since Pyongyang’s test-firing of the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) over Japan in August and September, came out of an agreement made at the 48th SCM as well as the December 2014 Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement (TISA). At last Saturday’s SCM, defense officials committed to conduct more missile warning and anti-submarine warfare exercises, as well as multiple combined flight-training missions with U.S. bomber aircraft.
The question remains, though, whether or not the North Korean threat will lead to greater tightening of trilateral linkages. Although evidence indicates it may, Van Jackson’s work shows there are limits. The U.S. role as third-party mediator provides a “buffer” between Seoul and Tokyo, which while facilitating functional cooperation also simultaneously insulates antagonistic national discourses or bilateral policies from pressures for change. Time will tell whether Pyongyang’s threats and U.S. mediating efforts will be more compelling than the abiding historical antagonism between Seoul and Tokyo alongside the former’s concerns about a more militarized Japanese defense posture.