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Mapping the Future of the U.S.-South Korean Military Alliance

The U.S.-South Korean military alliance is undergoing a profound transformation. At the 44th Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), held in Washington, DC in October 2012, South Korea and the United States laid much of the foundation for future developments. In recent years, U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak set aside diplomatic initiatives with North Korea, and increasingly emphasized intimidation through military might. That tendency was reinforced in the SCM.

The 2012 SCM followed in the immediate wake of the decision by the United States to grant South Korea an exemption under the Missile Technology Control Regime, allowing Seoul to build ballistic missiles that can strike any part of North Korea.

One of the main topics discussed at the SCM was the transition of wartime operational control (OPCON) from the U.S. to South Korea. Currently, in the event of war South Korean troops would operate under U.S. command. The transfer to South Korea of control over its own armed forces during wartime is scheduled to occur in 2015, and in the SCM both sides laid plans for joint biannual meetings to evaluate progress toward that goal.1

Never a popular concept in the U.S. military or among conservative forces in South Korea, it remains to be seen how much autonomy the South Korean military will eventually be granted, once details of the plan have been finalized. The structure of the new combined command system has yet to be devised, but one security analyst points out that “the U.S. has major crucial military assets including intelligence-gathering capabilities, while Seoul still lacks a full range of assets. Under these circumstances, although Seoul will formally maintain the command authority, it will actually be limited, or the U.S. may continue to exert its military leadership. After all, the U.S. military has never been under the control of any foreign commanders in any major wars.”2

At the SCM, the United States proposed that South Korea delay talks on the new combined command until after the new South Korean administration takes office in February 2013.3 That suggestion may have been prompted by an indication by a New Frontier Party official that an electoral win by conservative forces could result in the OPCON transfer being renegotiated, or in essence, terminated.4

If a former commander of the U.S. 7th Air Force in Korea is to be believed, the new combined command will differ little from the current arrangement. “The air component will be the only capability that remains separate,” explains retired Lt. General Stephen G. Wood. “It will continue to be run as it is today — by a U.S. commander. However, the U.S. commander will work very closely with the combatant commander, who will likely be a South Korean senior army officer.”5

Supplanting Diplomacy with Deterrence

The salient outcome of the 2012 SCM is a more militarized approach to security. Four years ago, there was a noticeable nod to diplomacy in the 2008 SCM Joint Communiqué, in which the Six Party Talks were referred to as having “contributed to peace and stability.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and South Korean Minister of Defense Lee Sang-hee “shared the view that inter-Korean dialogue should resume expeditiously in order to address pending issues of mutual concern.”6

Such language is entirely absent in the 2012 SCM Joint Communiqué, which reflects the hardline position of Obama and Lee towards North Korea. The watchword now is “deterrence,” and the relationship with North Korea is seen solely in terms of military confrontation.

At the 2012 SCM, the United States committed to “strengthen extended deterrence…using the full range of military capabilities, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella, conventional strike, and missile defense capabilities.” Both sides adopted the concept of “tailored deterrence,”7 which the South Korean military regards as the most important development to come out of the SCM. According to an official in South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, “The tailored deterrence strategy is a concept which ultimately means that North Korea’s nuclear, chemical, biological weapons, ballistic missiles, mobile vehicle launchers (known as TELs) will be struck during contingencies using ROK [Republic of Korea] and U.S. conventional forces, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella and precision guided weapons, and our command and control equipment, and this strategy will be applied in both peacetime and wartime.”8

It is those last four words that are particularly troubling. The extended deterrence plan envisions first strike military force against North Korea in certain scenarios, even when both Koreas are at peace. This policy seriously misjudges the North Koreans, who are unlikely to acquiesce in bombardment without fighting back, and risks lighting a conflagration.

In order to perfect the plan, the United States and South Korea will hold annual exercises to simulate the implementation of tailored deterrence. One of the more notable aspects of the plan is that it calls for joint U.S. and South Korean military operations against North Korea in a wide variety of situations. Even minor incidents could involve the United States.

Triggering Military Action

North Korean threats are defined in four categories: full-scale conventional war, local provocations, asymmetrical, and “new” types. Under tailored deterrence, each threat will receive a specific military response appropriate to its level. For example, an operation by a North Korean submarine would be targeted by anti-submarine torpedoes and ship-to-surface missiles. The tailored deterrence strategy is expected to be fully mapped out by 2014.9

One unpredictable aspect of seeing every problem in terms of a military solution is that events are not entirely under South Korean and American control. North Korea would be an actor, too, and its response could in turn trigger more widespread attacks by South Korean and U.S. forces, which in turn might bring a more robust North Korean reaction. A minor incident could set off a chain reaction that would lead to a more serious armed conflict than anticipated.

Consider the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan. South Korea and the United States accused North Korea of deliberately torpedoing the Cheonan, yet the preponderance of evidence points to an accidental sinking due to hitting a South Korean mine as a more probable cause.10 Had tailored deterrence been in place at the time, any North Korean submarine that was at sea at the time would have been targeted and sunk, and submarine bases may have been bombed as well. Instead of a tragedy in which 46 sailors lost their lives due to an unfortunate accident, many thousands could have been willfully killed.

As a key component in the tailored defense plan, South Korea and the United States agreed to cooperate in establishing what they termed a “kill chain,” which is to be an integrated system for tracking and striking North Korean missile sites.11 According to American and South Korean officials, the kill chain will enable them to destroy North Korean missile sites within 30 minutes of detection. The kill chain is in essence a preemptive attack, destroying North Korean missiles before they can be launched. If either the United States or South Korea decides that North Korean missiles may be fired, a strike is launched. The concept presupposes that North Korean intent can be determined with absolute assurance based on the disposition of its missiles. It could even conceivably happen that actual North Korean intent would not matter much to the United States or South Korea if they felt intent on inflicting punishment over some issue. South Korea and the United States want to move forward quickly, and the SCM called for the kill chain system to be implemented by 2015.12

The kill chain envisions the capability of not only hitting North Korean missiles that are perceived to have been deployed in a threatening manner. Strikes could potentially be launched before North Korean missiles are even deployed in the first place. South Korea plans to purchase 60 advanced warplanes, most likely from the United States. According to Lt. General Jan-Marc Jouas, Deputy Commander of the United Nations Command Korea, the F-22 and F-35 warplanes under consideration have “an inherent ISR [Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance] capability that we can exploit. And as our sensors join together to form a common picture, hopefully that would integrate with the ground and naval components’ capabilities, so that we can rapidly target the developing threats before they are in position to employ.”13

The kill chain is intended to operate as a partnership, relying on U.S. satellites and drones to detect North Korean missiles on mobile launch pads, after which South Korean missiles and warplanes would strike the missiles on their launch systems.14

The advanced warplanes that South Korea intends to purchase will, according to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense, allow it “to acquire the capabilities required to covertly infiltrate into North Korean territory and to carry out precision strikes in order to neutralize the enemy’s key nuclear facilities during contingencies.” South Korea is further beefing up its arsenal through the planned purchase of air-to-surface missiles capable of penetrating North Korean underground facilities. There is also a naval base undergoing construction on Jeju Island, which the Ministry argues “will support the strengthening of maritime control and protect sea routes.”15

Advocates for Aggression

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is ranked by the International Relations Program at the University of Pennsylvania as the number one think tank in the category of security and international affairs, and among the top ten think tanks “with the greatest impact on public policy (global),” based on input from more than one thousand experts and officials.16 According to the CSIS, the organization “provides strategic insights and bipartisan solutions to decision makers in government,” and others. Policies advocated by the CSIS tend to find receptive ears in Washington.

In 2011, the CSIS published a report in which it espoused a more aggressive approach to North Korea. It is interesting to note how closely the Center’s proposals align with the policies agreed upon at the 2012 SCM. The CSIS argued that South Korean and American military responses to North Korea should be coordinated. “Because South Korea’s tepid response to North Korean provocations can aggravate a situation, if not lead to further provocation,” the CSIS stated, “South Korea and the United States should take strong punitive measures against the North.” The report envisions two levels of response: 1) deterrence — “repelling North Korea’s attack,” and 2) punishment — “striking some of North Korea’s key military targets and destroying the enemy’s will to fight, even at the risk of escalating the conflict.” The report admits that the punishment scenario “could quickly escalate the conflict and trigger all-out war, depending on North Korea’s reaction.”17 But not to worry, in answer to that concern it is recommended that the new combined command classify red lines of North Korean behavior in various categories, beyond which the appropriate military action should be taken.

The report points out that the South Korean response to the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island “failed to deliver a satisfactory outcome.” Instead, more desirable results could be achieved “through inflicting significant damage on the North, utilizing the superior combined forces of the Republic of Korea and the United States.” Such a response would also offer the advantage of helping to “limit China’s diplomatic influence in the affairs of the Korean peninsula.”18 China, next-door neighbor to the Korean Peninsula, is regarded as lacking any legitimate basis for diplomatic influence, whereas the United States, some 6,000 miles away, has the natural right to hold diplomatic and military sway over the region.

At the 2012 SCM, the two sides determined that plans would be completed within a few months on developing a counter-provocation plan aimed at North Korea. “We are currently discussing with the U.S. on the details of what kind of U.S. forces will be employed and when these forces will be employed during a North Korean provocation,” reported a South Korean Ministry of National Defense official.19 At the press conference that followed the end of the 2012 SCM, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that “the kind of behavior that we’ve seen in the past [from North Korea] is not the kind of behavior that we will tolerate in the present or in the future.” South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin noted that the United States had committed to “rapidly providing overwhelming reinforcement in the event of contingencies.”20

Military Alliance Goes Global

On a wider scale, South Korea’s military is steadily being integrated into U.S. and NATO geopolitical and military initiatives. According to U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the defense alliance with South Korea “is growing into a much broader and more comprehensive global alliance.”21

Recently, NATO and South Korea agreed to develop an individual partnership and cooperation program. “We have been increasing cooperation with South Korea over the last years,” announced NATO official Dick Brengelmann. “We want to make sure that we have the same level of interoperability with all partners in the future.” South Korea currently has soldiers stationed in Afghanistan and Somalia in support of NATO operations, and Brengelmann is “optimistic that more can be done in the future.”22

At the 2012 SCM, the United States and South Korea signed an agreement on “military space cooperation,” which U.S. military officials deem an important component in their Asia-Pacific regional plans.23 There will be an exchange of personnel in support of the program, including the sending of South Korean officers to attend training at the U.S. Air Force Space Command.24

Some military experts have pointed out that the agreement on military space cooperation could be intended to support wider aims in Asia. “It is too much expectation if you believe that the U.S. would work out its military strategy to only defend South Korea,” observed Lee Choon-kun, a security analyst at the Korea Economic Research Institute. “The U.S. is projecting a global power with a global strategy.”25

The United States is strongly interested in having South Korea join its missile defense system, and this was a topic of extensive discussion at the SCM. South Korean military officials insist that their missile defense plans are separate from the U.S. system, but American officials are persistent. There have long been bilateral discussions on South Korean cooperation, and fairly recently South Korea signed a Terms of Reference and Agreement with the United States that gave the go-ahead on a ballistic missile defense program analysis.26

While the South Korean and U.S. missile defense systems “are clearly different,” an official in South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense recently commented, “there could be some areas where South Korea contributes in a limited way to the U.S.-led missile defense system.”27

The Pentagon commissioned a study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies that was submitted to Congress, in which the introduction of U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot PAC-3 missile systems into South Korea was recommended. The United States has already installed an X-Band radar system in Japan, capable of operating in coordination with THAAD launchers.28 According to Pentagon officials, the Obama Administration regards its expansion of missile defense into Asia as a counter to both North Korea and China.29

Perhaps not coincidentally, South Korea plans to replace its Patriot PAC-2 missiles with the PAC-3 model. The accuracy of the PAC-3 is reported to be more than twice as high as its predecessor. More importantly, the PAC-2 is unsuited for integration into the U.S. anti-missile system, designed as it was to shoot down warplanes and helicopters, whereas the PAC-3 has the capability of hitting ballistic missiles. The PAC-3, however, is not very effective against aircraft and air-to-surface and cruise missiles.30 If South Korea feels more threatened by North Korean ballistic missiles than it does from low-flying missiles and aircraft, then the upgrade makes sense in terms of self-defense. But if that is not the case, then integration into the U.S. missile defense system would appear to be the driving motivation for the decision to convert to the PAC-3.

At the 2012 SCM, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin promised American military officials that there would be a “push” to build the PAC-3 system. Military officials intend for the PAC-3 and kill chain systems to be established in close coordination with each other.31 Are American military officials so adamant about South Korea building a PAC-3 system solely to defend against missiles from the North? Or, more likely, is the PAC-3 so important to them because of its potential utility in the U.S. missile defense system?

For its part, the United States plans to modify the role of the U.S. 8th Army, stationed in South Korea. By 2017, the 8th Army will be made a field army, meaning that it can command other U.S. and multinational forces. Although its main focus will continue to be on the Korean Peninsula, its new role will become regional, allowing it to send soldiers from South Korea to any part of the globe.32 South Korea can serve as a launching pad for intervention by U.S. forces into other nations.

Clearly, the South Korean strategic mission is becoming ever more intertwined with that of the United States, raising the prospect of greater involvement in U.S./NATO wars and interventions. American officials will not relent in their attempts to impel South Korea to join the U.S. missile defense system. In doing so, South Korea would thereby support the encirclement and containment of China, potentially straining relations between the two nations. More worrisome is the complete rejection of diplomacy as an appropriate mode of inter-Korean relations. By adopting a policy of military confrontation with the North, the United States and South Korea are significantly increasing the prospect for armed conflict, whether limited or not, and it is only the Korean people, north and south, who would pay the price if plans go awry.

The militaristic policies emanating from the 2012 SCM are set in motion, and it will be difficult to reverse course. It is to be hoped that the new South Korean president has the inclination and the ability to do so, placing the needs of the Korean people ahead of those who serve corporate-military interests.

*Gregory Elich is on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and on the Advisory Board of the Korea Truth Commission. He is the author of the book Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem, and the Pursuit of Profit.

  1. Kim Eun-jung, “S. Korea, U.S. Reaffirm 2015 Deadline for Wartime Operation Control Transition,” Yonhap, October 23, 2012.

  2. Song Sang-ho, “Seoul May Find Military Command Limited as U.S. Holds Key Assets,” Korea Herald, October 25, 2012.

  3. “US Requests Delay in Talks on New Joint Military Command,” Dong-A Ilbo, November 8, 2012.

  4. Lee Tae-hoon, “ROK to Take Back Wartime Control in 2015 as Planned,” Korea Times, October 24, 2012.

  5. “South Korean Defense Re-considered: Preparing for 2015,” Second Line of Defense, August 28, 2012.

  6. Joint Communiqué: the 40th U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meeting, October 17, 2008.

  7. Joint Communiqué: the 44th U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meeting, October 24, 2012.

  8. Kim Bum Ryun, “Establish a Comprehensive Strategic Alliance in Preparation of NK Threats,” ROK Ministry of National Defense, October 26, 2012.

  9. “Security Consultative Meeting,” Korean Broadcasting System, October 28, 2012.


  11. “Kim Jong-un a Loose Cannon, Says USFK Chief,” Chosun Ilbo, October 25, 2012.

  12. “New Command Structure,” Korea Times, October 25, 2012.

  13. “Meeting the Korean Defense Challenge: the View from the 7th Air Force,” Second Line of Defense, August 3, 2012. Italic emphasis in quotation is mine.

  14. Kim Hee-jin and Jeong Yong-soo, “Korea, U.S. Agree on More Missile Defense,” JoongAng Ilbo, October 26, 2012.

  15. Kim Byung Ryoon, “Acquisition of Capabilities in Preparation of North Korean Threats and OPCON Transfer,” ROK Ministry of National Defense, November 15, 2012.

  16. 2011 Global Go To Think Tank Index Rankings


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