On Status of Military Ties between US and South Korea

Having written about implementing the inter-Korean summit agreements on military aspects, we will now wait and see what effect this will have on the military cooperation between South Korea and the USA, either when it comes to staging joint military drills or reaching a new cost-sharing agreement for basing U.S. troops in South Korea.

Withdrawal of US armed forces from ROK 

At the moment, this topic is one of the most controversial issues, being stirred up by the Trump opponents with dire warnings as “everything is lost, the US forces are on the verge of being withdrawn, the nation is falling apart and DPRK is poised to take over it all”.  The US journalist Bob Woodward added fuel to the fire in his book “Fear: Trump in the White House” by writing that Donald Trump had intended to tweet about the withdrawal of 28.5 thousand US troops from South Korea. And only the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis managed to dissuade the US President from doing so, as North Korea could have interpreted such a statement as a declaration of war and a sign of an imminent strike, which could have led to an attack against South Korea and eventually nuclear war.

But in fact, during the meeting with Kim Jong-un on September 18, Moon Jae-in said that the issue of stationing US forces in South Korea depends on the decision made by ROK and the USA, irrespective of any declarations to end the war or peace agreements.

Then on September 26, in answering the question posed by the TV channel Fox News, Moon Jae-in stated that the presence of US armed forces on the Korean Peninsula would remain necessary even if North and South Koreas were to unite. When asked whether he wanted the US troops to leave the peninsula, the South Korean President replied that the presence of American forces in South Korea not only aided deterrence and containment of North Korea, but also played a crucial role in maintaining peace and stability in the whole Northeast Asian region. Even after the declaration to end the war is signed and the two Koreas are unified, the ROK President sees the need for a continued presence of US troops in Korea to ensure peace and stability there.  The author’s reaction to this is “no comment”. Furthermore, anyone who thinks that the leader of ROK is North Korea’s ally should be reminded of these statements.

On October 31, the 50th annual Republic of Korea-United States Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) was held in Washington. As a result, a strategic directive called “Alliance’s guiding principles” was adopted. The document was signed by the Defense Ministers of the two nations, Jeong Kyeong-doo and James Mattis. According to these guidelines, once operational control over Korean troops is transferred to Seoul as planned in times of war, the US forces will remain stationed on the Korean Peninsula, and the joint command over the allied military forces will not be disbanded. However, it will be headed by a South Korean general. Still, the issue of when complete operational control over its armed forces will be transferred to Seoul in war time remains unresolved, i.e. “whenever”. However, according to some ROK analysts, it may happen before 2022, during Moon Jae-in’s presidency.

This document is quite important, as transferring the right to command Korean military forces from the US to ROK very clearly shows that, despite the thaw between South and North Koreas, there is no serious mistrust or weakening within the US-ROK military alliance.

Joint military drills

We would like to remind our readers that in June of this year, Seoul and Washington announced their intention not to hold their annual large-scale joint military exercises, Freedom Guardian, so as not to escalate tensions around the Korean Peninsula.

While discussing the outcomes of the North Korea–United States summit in Singapore, Donald Trump announced his decision to stop all “war games” on the Korean Peninsula for the sake of dialogue with Pyongyang, because he views such exercises as provocative and expensive. His comments referred to the ROK – US combined field training drills Foal Eagle, Ulchi Freedom Guardian and Key Resolve.

On September 25, the current commander of U.S. Forces Korea Robert Abrams said that the suspension of joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States has somewhat decreased combat readiness of the two nations’ armed forces. In his view, this was a well thought-through and, at the same time, risky decision, taken with the aim of establishing closer ties with DPRK. In addition, Abrams highlighted that withdrawal of US forces from ROK could result in serious strategic threats, considering North Korea’s military capabilities.

On October 20, the Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana White told journalists that South Korea and the USA had suspended their joint aerial exercise, Vigilant Ace, scheduled for December, so as not to hinder diplomatic efforts aimed at normalizing the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Previously, the military exercise Vigilant Ace was held in December of last year. More than 230 planes and approximately 12,000 military personnel of the two nations took part in the drills.

At the same time, it became public that the decision about other large-scale combined military exercises for 2019 was to be made by Washington and Seoul by December.

The decision to suspend Vigilant Ace aerial drills was confirmed at the previously mentioned meeting held on October 31.  An agreement was also reached to coordinate further plans on joint military drills during work meetings by the end of the year.

Two-week ROK-US military exercises (of KMEP (Korea Marine Exercise Program) standards), involving marines, began on November 5. They are being staged near the city of Pohang, in the province of North Gyeongsang without media coverage. Approximately 500 marines and airborne assault weaponry from both sides are involved in the drills. From the US side, servicemen from the 3rd Marine Division, stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa, are taking part in the exercises. The aim of the military drills is to maintain combined defense capabilities and to increase cooperation levels. Eighteen rounds of such military exercises were scheduled for this year, but only 11 rounds have been held so far, while the rest were postponed with the aim of promoting negotiations with Pyongyang.

Drills began several days after Pyongyang threatened to revamp its nuclear program if international pressure failed to ease tensions.

On the same day, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JSC), Joseph Dunford, said that if progress were to be made in the dialogue between DPRK and the United States, changes would need to be initiated with regards to the US forces stationed on the Korean Peninsula. Still, as the JSC representative stated at a later time, the United States is not ready to discuss the possibility of reducing its military presence on the Korean Peninsula, and Joseph Dunford simply highlighted the fact that the Pentagon was aiding the negotiation process.

The last piece of news about this topic came on November 21, with the statement that the combined U.S.-South Korea Foal Eagle military exercises, scheduled for the spring of next year, “would be modified to allow ongoing U.S. and South Korean diplomacy with North Korea to continue uninterrupted”. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made this announcement at a meeting with journalists. What this actually means will become clear from the nature of the dialogue closer to spring. In the meantime, on November 22, the Official Spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said that, at present, details connected to the future course of the combined exercises were being worked out, and that South Korean and U.S. military bodies were cooperating closely to resolve the Pyongyang nuclear issue.

 Issue of agreement on covering expenditures

It is worth reminding our readers that the United States and South Korea have to complete negotiations of all the terms of the 10th cost-sharing agreement for basing U.S. troops in South Korea by the end of 2018. This year, South Korea has spent 960.2 billion won or $847.4 million on keeping 28,500 US troops on its territory. The previously mentioned expenditures include payments for services provided by South Korean workers, construction work at the U.S. military base and supply of materials.  Remaining costs are covered by outlays from the US budget.

The United States demands that ROK cover the costs of deploying strategic armed forces (carrier strike groups, strategic bombers, etc.) to the region, often used as a show of force to DPRK in that part of the world. Seoul, on the other hand, thinks that costs of transporting strategic weapons and equipment have little to do with outlays connected to keeping permanent US troops in South Korea, and therefore, refuse to cover them.

The seven rounds of negotiations, during which the American side insisted South Korea increase its spending, did not result in any agreement on the issue so far.  In the eighth round of negotiations, which took place on October 16 and 17 in Seoul, other disagreements between the two sides emerged about clauses that deal with total expenditure (a proposal was made to Seoul to increase its outlays from the current $820 million to $1.3 billion per year), length of contract and transparent budget implementation. All of these factors could prevent the new agreement from coming into force by the end of this year. Although previously a Spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the negotiations were moving forward and were in their final stages, the latest round took four days and concluded with the agreement to continue dialogue in the spirit of mutual respect and understanding.

The ninth round of negotiations on the cost-sharing agreement for basing U.S. troops in South Korea was held in Honolulu on November 13 through 16.  According to the representative of South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the two sides had managed to bridge the gap on several points up for negotiation, but no concrete agreements had been reached.

To conclude, even if everything is not going smoothly, the issues facing military cooperation between the United States and South Korea are mainly economic and not political in nature.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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