After 70 years of partnership, it’s time for an overhaul of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. The two need a complete rethink about North Korean military threats, which have become much more diverse. Besides the legacy threat of conventional military attack from the North, South Korea and the United States now confront a nuclear threat and also the prospect of asymmetric attacks through cyberspace and by other non-conventional means.
Symmetric and Asymmetric Threats
South Korea and United States Forces Korea (USFK) are currently based around tit-for-tat legacy operational concepts designed to push back North Korean mass and distributed threats. But today, the allies need to deal with North Korean unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), artillery, main battle tanks (MBTs), missiles, and special forces; they also need to distinguish a full-scale attack from provocations intended to send a political message.
North Korea has prioritized its nuclear weapons development over its conventional military capabilities, so most of their conventional weapons and systems appear to be obsolete, and the ROK-U.S. alliance therefore has a high degree of confidence in its ability to counter North Korean conventional military capabilities. In general, North Korean weapons can only target fixed ground facilities and still have limited precision and lethality. But North Korea has recently developed some new conventional weapons and systems, notably the 600 mm “super-large multiple rocket launcher,” the KN-23 improved short-range ballistic missile, and the Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). These emergent threats are serious, and need a response from South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND).
ROK’s Defense Reform 2.0 is focusing on how to adapt technologies of the “fourth industrial revolution,” such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality, to retrofit existing weapons and systems, but this is inadequate. Rather than adapting civilian technologies for military purposes, South Korea needs to develop dual-purpose technologies developed for and driven by military requirements.
North Korea is close to achieving its long-term goal of becoming a fully capable nuclear power, and is also enhancing its cyber warfare capability. The North conducts frequent cyberattacks, recently including those on the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Corporation, and Korea Aerospace Industries. Existing South Korean cyber defenses are incapable of effectively countering such attacks.
North Korea also conducts psychological warfare, for example by denying responsibility for sinking the ROKS Cheonan in 2010 and accusing the South Korean military instead. This campaign has aggravated the suffering of victims’ families and exacerbated political polarization in South Korea.
North Korea’s asymmetric threats will require some new thinking, going beyond the traditional conceptual scenarios. South Korea’s response needs to be practical, effective, and proportionate to the severity of the provocation. Unfortunately, however, it seems that the ROK military and USFK are currently experiencing considerable difficulty in moving toward this kind of a more realistic approach, which requires changing their tactical doctrines and evolving new operational concepts. A range of novel scenarios needs to be modeled, involving both symmetric confrontations and asymmetric attacks in the electronic, space, and cyber domains. The military strategy of the ROK-U.S. alliance is now heavily dependent upon the electronic interconnection of weapons and systems, such as UAVs/UUVs and Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) networks. These are vulnerable to new types of attack, for example, electromagnetic pulse weapons, which North Korea will likely seek to acquire.
The Need for New Approach
There is also another reason to propose an urgent review of existing military scenarios. On May 21, at the Biden-Moon summit in Washington, D.C., the South Korean president agreed to participate in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy. Many military experts have interpreted this to mean that the ROK-U.S. alliance will no longer be focused entirely on the military situation of the Korean Peninsula. In the future, the South Korean military and Combined Forces Command (CFC) of the two countries could become involved in military roles and missions throughout the wider Indo-Pacific region, perhaps in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. In that case, the ROK-U.S. alliance surely needs to be adapted to encompass new concepts of joint operation and new doctrines.
The ROK-U.S. military alliance has a long and successful history. It is a great alliance, but in the contested and complex military environment of today’s Korean Peninsula, the CFC needs a new approach to sustain the alliance into the future. We must address the weaknesses and constraints which undermine the effectiveness of the current ROK-U.S. alliance.
First, we need to invest not just in preparing for symmetric and legacy threats, but also for asymmetric threats across an all-domain battlespace. North Korean conventional threats are well understood after seven decades, but asymmetric threats from North Korea are increasing, and poorly characterized. So far, the allies have no substantial countermeasures in place.
Second, rather than prioritizing or revitalizing the ROK defense budget, it needs to be recapitalized, to allow the development of new doctrines and operational concepts, and to build the appropriate platforms. The recapitalization should include integrating the Command and Control (C2) chains of South Korea and the United States to counter new and emerging threats, and Moon’s rigidly scheduled OPCON transfer plan must be abandoned.
Third, now that South Korea has bought into the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy, the integrated ROK-U.S. C2 will be conducting more diversified missions and roles, whether for the military situation of the Korean Peninsula or for crises and contingencies at regional flashpoints, such as the South China Sea and Taiwan. A bilateral Combined Forces Combat Development Command between South Korea and the United States should be established to prepare for overseas expeditionary joint military operations beyond the Korean Peninsula.
Expanding the ROK-U.S. Alliance Into the Wider Indo-Pacific Region
At his May 21 summit with Biden, Moon agreed that ROK armed forces will join with USFK as part of a wider Indo-Pacific Strategy. What does the ROK-U.S. alliance need to get ready for in new military situations beyond the Korean Peninsula, and how can the current CFC evolve the necessary new operational concepts?
First, the ROK-U.S. alliance needs to build a bilateral and integrated JADC2 network incorporating South Korea’s C2 and ISR to improve joint combat capabilities and enhance survival prospects in the event of a North Korean massed military attack against major fixed targets across the Korean Peninsula. Although USFK is being equipped with JADC2 capability under the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2022, it is imperative that the ROK armed forces are not left behind. For ISR, South Korea should accelerate its development of XLUUVs capable of monitoring newly-built North Korean ballistic missile submarines from the near seas of North Korea before oceangoing operations begin.
Second, the Ministry of National Defense should recapitalize its budget to develop a new concept of combined/joint coalition operations between South Korea and the United States to encompass next-generation platforms such as Manned and Unmanned Team (MUM-T), sophisticated ISR sensors similar to the U.S. Army AN/TPQ-53 radar to create a Korean version of the Israeli Iron Dome, and integrated C2 networks capable of being adapted for theaters beyond the Korean Peninsula.
Third, now that ROK forces are going to be operating together with USFK as part of a wider Indo-Pacific Strategy, the ROK-U.S. alliance needs to establish a new conceptual basis for a bilateral combined defense posture that can respond either to threats from North Korea or to regional crises. In particular, the LPX-Ⅱ light aircraft carrier project currently underway for the ROK Navy should be developed with such all-domain operations in mind, and integrated into a new combined defense posture with a novel conceptual frame of operations.
Implementing this kind of strategic flexibility will be challenging for both militaries. For South Korea, the prospect of USFK being occupied with regional crises beyond the Korean Peninsula could create a disturbing military power vacuum, and the ROK armed forces must be ready to step up to the plate. For the United States, expanding and diversifying the responsibilities of USFK could send the wrong signal to North Korea that the U.S. is losing interest in Korea, perhaps leading to a catastrophic miscalculation. As well, China and Russia may draw a similar conclusion about the U.S. commitment to its alliance with South Korea, and this could also destabilize regional security.
Strategic flexibility of USFK, with some involvement of ROK armed forces, may offer some marginal advantages in managing regional security contingencies, but it also has serious ramifications for the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula. For the United States, strategic flexibility for USFK may be a misstep, but for South Korea it could become an existential issue. The ROK-U.S. alliance has weathered the turmoil of the Trump years and his America First policy, but it was weakened by the experience. South Koreans are hoping that better days are coming now, and are seriously concerned about where strategic flexibility is leading. The Biden administration is also reconsidering its overseas force deployments in the Global Posture Review – should South Korea worry about the outcome?
For seven decades the ROK-U.S. alliance has focused on dealing with conventional military threats from North Korea, but the nature of the threat is now changing, and the alliance needs to change as well. In order to meet its objectives of survival and deterrence it needs to become more closely integrated, and recapitalization is required to cope with new kinds of threats and provocations. The ROK-U.S. alliance has suffered a period of relative neglect, but now needs to move on. Moreover, since the Biden-Moon summit the very raison d’etre of USFK has become unclear, and the United States should do what it can to reassure South Korea that the security of the Korean Peninsula will not be imperiled by the wider Indo-Pacific strategy.