In recent weeks, we have seen a number of interesting developments in — and analyses of — the US-ROK alliance; we are going to spotlight some of them in a two-part post. Today, we focus on the recently concluded Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) and parallel developments in Japan; tomorrow we consider some broader analysis.
The 45th Security Consultative Meeting between Secretary of Defense Hagel and his ROK counterpart Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-jin was prominent on the Secretary’s Asia itinerary last week.(Defense.gov coverage here, including link to transcript of press briefing; Joint Communique here in .pdf). The DCM, founded in the wake of the Pueblo incident, has become a key institutional pillar of the alliance. When things are going well—rarely these days—it provides a forum for showing commitment and reaffirming the alliance. The first paragraphs of the Joint Communique provide an excellent introduction to the institutional depth of the alliance, including bodies such as the Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue which oversees more specific defense consultation mechanisms: the Security Policy Initiative, Extended Deterrence Policy Committee, Strategic Alliance Working Group, and Counter-Missile Capabilities Committee.
When challenges arise, it can be used to announce new measures. Since this was the first SCM since the third nuclear test, a lot was on offer:
- In March, the alliance partners signed an ROK-U.S. Counter-Provocation Plan. This time, the two ministers signed a broadly-defined “Tailored Deterrence Strategy Against North Korean Nuclear and other WMD Threats.” The new agreement establishes a framework for responding to nuclear threats “across armistice and wartime” and “strengthens the integration of Alliance capabilities to maximize their deterrent effects”;
- The two sides committed to deepening their anti-missile defense capabilities, including through greater inter-operability of command and control;
- The meeting also underlined recent cooperation with respect to space and cyber. Terms of reference were signed for bilateral military space cooperation at the last SCM, ROK-U.S. Cyber Policy Consultations were held in July, and a Cyber Cooperation Working Group was launched in September.
The one note of uncertainty centered on the status of OPCON transfer, and reporters at the briefing jumped on it. The Park administration has again sought delay of OPCON transfer, saying it should be “condition based.” Secretary Hagel agreed in principle, but was less committal about revising the schedule. He did reiterate the commitment to maintaining the present force level on the peninsula and to completing the base relocation plan to Pyeongtaek, but discussions on the timing of OPCON transfer are clearly ongoing.
The 2+2 meetings with Japan that followed—including both the Secretaries of State and Defense—bore a number of parallels, including a reaffirmation of the alliance, dealing with complex redisposition of forces and commitments on missile defense. But the Japan meeting was more significant, in large part because of the tremendous uncertainty surrounding Chinese intentions around the Senkakus/Diaoyus. In addition, the political alignments are unusual given the combination of the Obama pivot to Asia and the Abe administration’s stated objective of revisiting Article IX of the Constitution. Abe’s ambitions are large, as Bruce Klingner at Heritage notes in a thoughtful review:
“Remarkably, within only weeks of entering office, Abe implemented two supplemental adjustments to last year’s defense budget and increased this year’s by 2.9 percent, reversing the trend of 11 consecutive years of reduced Japanese defense spending. Abe has also called for a revision to Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines and pledged to adopt a collective self-defense strategy, create Japan’s first national security strategy, and create a National Security Council to overcome the country’s weak crisis decision making.”
In sum, the Joint Statement is rightly viewed as a watershed event. Klingner’s commentary on the statement begins with his concerns about US and Japanese military spending and the problem of burden-sharing. But he also highlights risks associated with Prime Minister Abe’s nationalist baggage in the region. Klingner sees the revision of the guidelines not only as a means of strengthening joint capabilities but of managing risk within the alliance.
Secretary Kerry also had some remarks on the North Korean issue in response to a question, including a restatement of US willingness to engage with North Korea; parsing the fine print, they appear marginally more expansive. But the larger strategy of strategic patience clearly remains intact.
Finally, to the myriad of other reasons why the government shutdown is damaging to US interests, we can now add the fact that President Obama has been forced to cancel his Asia travel. The American public—and even foreign police elites—can’t necessarily tell APEC from the East Asia Summit. But I can assure you: leaders in Asia can. The list of things that can be done at such meetings is long: discussion of the Trans Pacific Partnership, side bars with President Xi and Putin—including on Syria—trips to the Philippines and Indonesia, crucial countries in the US effort to signal the importance of Southeast Asia in US regional diplomacy, bolstering the trans-Pacific elements of the region’s institutional architecture, including particularly the EAS. And so on and so on and so on. This is not collateral damage; this is willful inattention to the reasons you need a functioning government, such as maintaining the credibility of your foreign policy in Asia.
“With respect to North Korea, North Korea is a nation that has behaved outside of any standards of rule of law and any of the norms of international behavior. And North Korea needs to understand that the United States of America is prepared to engage in negotiations, providing North Korea makes it clear that those negotiations begin with the issue of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
And I think the six parties involved in the Six-Party Talks have made it crystal clear we are prepared to reengage in those talks, we are prepared to have a peaceful relationship with North Korea, we are not engaged in regime change, we are prepared to sign a non-aggression agreement – providing North Korea decides to denuclearize and to engage in legitimate negotiations to achieve that end. But we have said again and again we are not going to get into a repeat of past negotiations which go around in a circle, where there’s some concession, some agreement, and then the agreement is broken, and the nuclear program continues and gets even further down the road. We’re simply not going there.
And China, I believe, has become an important partner, making very significant decisions in the last months to help to bring North Korea to a place of understanding the importance of denuclearizing. So we’re unified. Japan, the United States, and China and Russia and Korea – South Korea, the Republic of Korea – are unified in the requirement that the North must commit to denuclearizing. And that is the peaceful path forward, and that is what we’re committed to.”