On June 14th, the United States and South Korea agreed to strengthen their joint defensive ties during the U.S.-Korea Ministerial Dialogue 2+2 Meetings (U.S. Departments of State Remarks found here and here) held in Seoul. U.S Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta met with South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Sung-Hwan and Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-Jin in an attempt to hammer out a stronger alliance between the two nations, while committing to increased interoperability between the Republic of Korea military and the U.S. Forces Korea.
Secretary Clinton discussed a potential increase in U.S. missile defense systems on the peninsula, as well as expanded cooperation with South Korea on North Korean cyber threats, but little was revealed beyond the meeting’s direct indicator of the United States’ renewed pivot towards Asia. Both parties were careful to maintain North Korea as the primary focus of their efforts and statements, though the United States likely has eyes on locking down its allies for future confrontations against China. North Korea remains a convenient excuse for increasing the U.S. presence in South Korea.
Secretary Panetta continued his recent modus operandi of eluding to a smaller, scaled-down U.S. military force, heightening the need for increased cooperation between the two nations, but the overall tone of the meetings suggested an increase in modernizing military hardware on the peninsula. General James Thurman, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea has been keen on drumming up support for improved capabilities in his area of operations, including newer equipment and better missile defense capabilities, and it appears that the powers-that-be are listening.
Though South Korea has a conflicted love/hate relationship with its U.S. occupiers, the increased support will offer the ROK military increased training opportunities with the United States. Military authorities of both nations have already eluded to the possibility of turning the U.S. Second Infantry Division into a joint force between both nations. As an added bonus, further joint operations will give the ROK more access to U.S. machinery and technology. The ROK remains continually adept at ‘creating’ indigenous designs/versions of the various military technologies they’re allowed access to.
South Korea has a lot of issues on the table (and probably a few things under the table as well) as these agreements gain momentum. Seoul continues to champion for an extension of ballistic missile ranges from
500 km 300 km to up to 1,000 km, a topic where concrete answers were oft deflected and avoided during the 2+2 meeting media sessions. The U.S. maintains their worry that a renewed range allowance will anger Beijing, but Seoul may be gaining ground due to recent circumstances with North Korea and the U.S.’s need to allow Seoul a longer leash as it faces a domestic backlash against military operations.
The ROK is also keen on obtaining better and more advanced missile defense systems of their own, instead of those currently maintained by the United States on South Korean soil, or the increasingly obsolete PAC-2 units that South Korea bought from Germany. The 2+2 meeting offered no concrete information on whether these desires might finally coalesce into a serious reality, but Seoul will continue to press the U.S. on their desire for better indigenous defense platforms.
In addition, the US-ROK Nonproliferation Agreement, signed in 1972 as a means of keeping South Korea from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods and potentially creating nuclear weapons, expires in 2014 and has yet to see an agreement between the two sides.
If Seoul wants to show their diplomatic moxie, they should assure that any agreements expanding a U.S. presence on their soil will see some of the above issues resolved in a ROK-favorable manner. Then the ROK will be able to reap all the benefits of further access to and integration with the world’s premier fighting force, as well as a few perks to assure their own future as a military power in a hornet’s nest region of military powers, all for allowing the continued presence of drunken, shaven-headed foreign brawlers in Itaewon.
Craig was born & raised in the United States, having recently returned there after over five years in Asia. He is currently pursuing further education in the realms of East Asian Studies and Politics. Craig is an avid fan of the political, economic, and military machinations occurring throughout the Asian continent and how those turning gears affect the rest of the world. He's currently covering both North and South Korea for Asia Security Watch, enjoying shedding light on to this far-too-often ignored slice of Asia.
Craig Scanlan has 86 post(s) on New Pacific Institute