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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Slave to the Blog: US-ROK Alliance Edition II

by | October 8th, 2013 | 07:00 am

Following on our discussion of Secretary Hagel’s visit to Asia yesterday, here are a few things that have come to our attention that relate to the current state of the alliance.

We noted that the OPCON issue remained one of the sore points during the Secretary’s visit (the other being the ongoing chill between Korea and Japan). The Washington Post has reported on grousing both on the Hill (Sandy Levin) and repeated comments by USFK Commander Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti on the on-again, off-again OPCON transfer. However, a Hankyoreh editorial takes us into some of the domestic politics of the issue on the South Korean side. Calls for OPCON transfer to be conditional on the state-of-play on the peninsula have generally emanated from the right; recall that it was the Roh Moo Hyun administration that sought OPCON transfer on sovereignty grounds.

Hankyoreh pounced on a comment from Hagel on the way to Korea suggesting—but by no means saying—that OPCON transfer should be linked to more robust South Korean missile defense capabilities; the newspaper speculated that the US “might even want South Korea to field a stealth fighter” (more on that below). The result, according to the editorial, would be entanglement in US visions of containment:  “if negotiations about the OPCON transfer go as the US hopes they do…Korea would provoke China and Russia without even gaining the sovereignty that OPCON would represent. This would mean that Korea would find itself on the front lines in a major power conflict pitting the US and Japan against China and Russia.”

Back in August, however, Soon Ho Lee had a piece on East Asia Forum that suggests that the US is well aware of the strategic issues, but turns Hankyoreh’s argument almost completely on its head.  Over the summer, the ROK’s military procurement agency confirmed a European consortium was selected as the Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Project partner. The reason?  The US was reluctant to sell South Korea the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile). Lee speculates that Missile Technology Control limits were one reason, but range and payload restrictions had already been lifted under the October 2012 missile deal. Rather he suggests that the US had its own strategic concerns, including sensitivities in both China and Japan. Entanglement works two ways.

In more procurement news, South Korea decided several weeks ago not to go with Boeing’s F-15SE as the country’s next fighter jet (New York Times coverage here), prolonging the agony of its search for a replacement for its aging fleet of F-4s and F-5s.   None of the competitors had the right mix of technology, price and politics. The Boeing aircraft was cheaper than the leading competitors– Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and EADS’s Eurofighter—but it lacked stealth features. The F-35’s had stealth capabilities but were more expensive and there were concerns about delivery. The Eurofighter appeared to meet the cost and technological needs, but could the Koreans really go with a non-US supplier? The decision put the program to upgrade the airforce–capped at $7.2 billion–back to the drawing board.

The South has not been modest about some of its new capabilities. We got a call from a reporter asking us to comment on the quite visible display of military hardware in a parade during Hagel’s visit; The Australian among others picked up on the story, catalogued some of the weaponry on display—including new missile and cruise-missile capabilities–and noted the irony of Seoul resorting to a means of signaling that the North Korean’s have historically monopolized.  However, when it comes to irony—or the lack of it–we will leave the last word  to Rodong Sinmun, which referred to the parade as “an
 unprecedented display of lunatic hostility.”

Finally, at CSIS’s valuable PacNet series, Sukjoon Yoon talks about the new Chairman of the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff. For the first time in history, a Korean president has appointed a naval commander to the role, Adm. Chie Yoonhee, the former chief of naval operations. Yoon argues that the reasons are three: a subtle shift in South Korea’s grand strategy; the changing nature of the challenges on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia; and the deterrence failures of 2010. In a speech at the Coast Guard Academy, President Park argued that South Korea was for all practical purposes an island nation: 13th in the world in GDP, but ninth in maritime trade, fifth in container processing capability and first in shipbuilding capacity. Looking forward, South Korea should see its force posture built less around ground forces and more around a flexible, maritime capability. Such a conception also fits with the wider role Korea has sought in the provision of international public goods; for example, the ROK Navy Cheonghae Task Force has been conducting high-seas anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean region since 2009.

These arguments fit with where challenges have arisen in North-South relations: not at the DMZ but along the Northern Limit Line. Criticism of the South Korean military following the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do was intense, giving rise to new rules of engagement and the “anti-provocation” strategy signed with the US in March. It is also noteworthy that persistent tensions in Seoul-Tokyo relations did not interfere with the staging of trilateral naval exercises prior to Hagel’s visit. The exercises were aimed among other things at enhancing missile detection capabilities and involved the US carrier George Washington, Aegis destroyers 
from South Korea and Japan, as well as other surface combatants. At least something in Korea-Japan relations is working; we will outline the difficulties on virtually all other fronts in a forthcoming post.