SEOUL (March 19, 2021)– South Korea and America’s top foreign policy and defense officials on Thursday reaffirmed their commitment to their alliance and a joint approach towards North Korea.
United States (US) Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin had “positive meetings in Tokyo and Seoul reaffirming the United States commitment to strengthening two of our most important alliances and highlighting cooperation that promotes peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world.” Blinken also held meetings with the US’ Korean counterparts– Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Minister of Defense Suh Wook, in Tokyo.
From Seoul, Blinken will fly on to Alaska where he will meet with Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday and Friday. Austin to remain in South Korea for another day before heading to India.
“The meetings in Anchorage will be an opportunity to make clear our priorities and interests, and to continue to press the PRC on issues where the U.S. and the international community expect transparency and accountability, and to understand where we may have interests in cooperating, including climate change.”
Blinken’s office said that this meeting will be a “frank conversation in calling out Beijing’s actions to defy their international commitments, undermine the rule-based international system, and challenge the security, prosperity, and values of the United States and our partners and alliances. We are coming to these discussions clear-eyed about China’s unsettling track record of failure to keep its promises.”
A critical shift in alliance command protocols remains indefinitely delayed and the US military is voicing concern about new North Korean capabilities. South Korea is keen to engage rather than enrage Pyongyang, but Washington is already criticizing the Kim Jong Un regime’s human rights abuses.
A broader backdrop is ongoing China-US hegemonic competition. Hints have been dropped and invitations offered to South Korea to more actively engage with democratic partners globally, notably in “The Quad” and the upcoming G7-cum-G10 meeting.
That outreach is welcome recognition of South Korea’s rising global status. But Seoul, which is sometimes accused of “having a trade policy, not a foreign policy,” has customarily swerved from the values-based diplomacy so often promoted by the Anglosphere and West in general.
These matters could mean diplomatic discomfort for Seoul going forward.
The two countries maintain, “a robust combined defense posture…there is no daylight between us on this point,” Austin said during a televised press conference.
Referencing “a rollback of democracy and human rights around the world, including in Burma,” Blinken, also speaking at the press event, called on a joint stance “for the values and for the interests that unite us.”
North Korean Exchanges
Washington’s long-awaited policy review on North Korea is expected to be complete within weeks and Blinken assured that the US side was receptive to input. Speaking to local reporters, he said Washington had an open mind on North Korean issues and that it was “being informed by allies like South Korea.”
The Moon administration has long sought to engage North Korea. In that, it was first aided by the stance of the Trump administration, which held unprecedented summits with North Korea. More latterly, it was hindered after the failure of a 2019 summit led to a freeze in relations.
Biden has yet to fully clarify whether he will follow his predecessor and meet Kim Jong Un.
The day before the South Koreans and Americans met in Seoul, North Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui released a statement via state media revealing that the US had “tried to contact us since mid-February through several routes including New York,” via telephone and email.
Minister Hui said North Korea felt no need to respond. Complaining about ongoing military drills and US “reconnaissance,” the statement continued, in a reference to Kim-Trump summits, “We won’t give it such opportunities as in Singapore and Hanoi again.” Even so, the statement left the door open for more positive developments.
“We will counter the US on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill,” it said.
That statement followed a “diatribe” from Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, against joint South Korea-US drills – albeit her language was more restrained than that deployed against the drills in some previous years. The nine-day drills finish Thursday.
North Korea “has achieved alarming success in its quest to demonstrate the capability to threaten the US homeland,” General Glen VanHerck, commander of US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said in a statement to the US Senate on March 16.
Though North Korea is sticking to a self-appointed ICBM and nuclear test moratorium, since the failure of the 2019 summit, it has paraded new ICBMs. Such arms require testing.
While Blinken made clear that he considered China a part of the solution to North Korea, he was also forthright on Washington’s stance towards its rising regional and global competitor.
“Beijing’s aggressive and authoritarian behavior are challenging the stability, security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region,” he said.
That kind of forthrightness is not often heard in Seoul, which is wary of antagonizing its biggest trade partner and which accepts Beijing’s “One China Policy.”
Regarding the informal Indo-Pacific “Quad” alliance of Australia, Japan, India and the US, which the Biden administration is prioritizing and which some consider an anti-China entity, Chung said that there had been no call for Seoul to join.
Blinken, however, added that on Quad-related issues, “we’re also working very closely with the Republic of Korea.”
Repeating messages earlier aired in Tokyo, Austin stressed the need for trilateral defense cooperation between Korea, Japan and the US. Suh, however, noted, that “Seoul and Tokyo have some history issues which remain unresolved.”
A diplomatic disagreement occurred when Seoul insisted a Japanese vessel strike its “Rising Sun” ensign during a naval review in 2018. In another brouhaha the same year, a Korean destroyer lit up a Japanese reconnaissance plane with its target radar. And in 2019, Seoul announced its exit from an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, only to be dissuaded by Washington.
Since then, and following the resignation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, widely considered an ultra-nationalist by Koreans, Moon has reached out to new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. But Suga – citing what Tokyo considers South Korea’s bad faith in rescinding past agreements and related compensation packages covering wartime forced laborers and “comfort women” – has reportedly not responded.
These latter legal issues caused an unprecedented trade disagreements and diplomatic discontent. Given the firewall between the judiciary and the government in South Korea, it is unclear how either issue can be resolved. That leaves Seoul-Tokyo ties in disarray and Washington frustrated at the inability of the two democracies in the region to cooperate.
Command and Decontrol
General Austin made clear that Washington is not ready to grant “OPCON Transfer” – the long-running process of shifting wartime operational control of Korean troops from US to South Korean command.
The process was initiated by Moon’s late mentor, President Roh Moo-hyun in 2005, but was put on the back burner by the conservative administrations that held power in Seoul from 2008-2017.
Despite gaining renewed opportunities under Moon, there is no timeline in place, though it is known that Moon wants to finalize the process before he exits office in spring 2022. That may not happen. “All the conditions for this transition will take more time,” Austin said.
OPCON Transfer, which represents full military sovereignty for Seoul, is problematic for South Korea for two reasons. One, the process requires it to massively upgrade military spend – a process it has embarked upon. Two, it is a conditions-based, not timeline-based, process, and with the US the senior partner, Washington sets the conditions.
Moreover, annual joint spring exercises were not held in 2018 and 2019 to assuage North Korea, nor in 2020 due to Covid-19. They are underway this year, but as they have been scaled-back, a planned “Full Operational Capability” test has not taken place.
Seoul’s wider foreign policy has largely been restricted to key powers in the Asia Pacific region. A cynic might summarize it as: Stick tight to Washington; don’t irk Beijing; but feel free to irk Tokyo.
“We have been pretty much mercantilistic – very trade-oriented,” admitted Lim Eun-jung, a professor of international relations at Kongju National University. “Ideologically, we share many things with other liberal democracies, but China is a dear customer for us and this puts us in a very difficult position.”
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, host of this year’s G7 meeting, has invited South Korea along with Australia and India – countries that have recently had highly contentious issues with China – to London in June. The grouping has more of a unitary force than the larger G20, which includes China and Russia.
“The G20 may be more constrained, but with the G7, there is a sense of shared values and shared interests,” former UK prime minister Tony Blair told South Korea’s Arirang TV this week.
There are some expectations that the G7 may morph into a wider G10. But if the June meeting turns into an anti-Beijing talking shop, South Korea may prefer to keep its head below the wall.
“They are probably less willing to be as vocal as, say, the Australians,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based international relations expert at Troy University.
Even so, citing public sentiment, he suggested that Korea is aligned with the wider grouping. “I don’t think they differ on principles and objectives – there is a lot more convergence than divergence,” Pinkston said.
Source: Bee News Daily and Asia Times contributed to the article.