Given the exclusively anti-Chinese orientation of the idea of the Indo-Pacific and the clear intentions of Washington to weaken Chinese influence, one should expect the US to intensify work with its Asian allies and partners, among which the Republic of Korea occupies an important place, writes Valdai Club expert Andrey Gubin.
The Big Problems With Being a Middle-Range Power
After the presidential elections in the Republic of Korea (ROK), acute security problems emerged, which were “inherited” from the previous administration. Among the difficulties faced by Yoon Seok-youl’s team, Korean experts most often attribute increasing external debt, the epidemiological situation with COVID-19, the growing threat from the DPRK nuclear missile programme, as well as China’s tough stance against the strengthening of the US-South Korean defence alliance. Preliminarily, one can speak of a demonstration of intentions by the new administration to move closer to Washington, but the nature and pace of this process will neither be uniform nor unambiguous.
According to some theoretical views, the Republic of Korea has all the features of a so-called middle range power, capable of the independent protection of national interests and expansion of its influence within East Asia. In this regard, we can expect further increased attention to Seoul from Beijing, which never misses an opportunity to reduce American influence, playing on the desire of some US allies and partners to become more independent. At the same time, China is capable, not only of shows of force and “wolf-warrior” rhetoric, but also exerting soft-power pressure through financial and economic instruments.
The Koreans Tacked, and Tacked, and Tacked ...
Seoul has been conducting “Military Reform 2.0” since 2018. Its main goals in this are to develop a new concept of operations that are not tied solely to repelling DPRK aggression while developing command and control systems and communications, reducing the size of the armed forces while raising the technological level, as well as acquiring new capabilities in the field of defence, including using outer space and cyberspace.
It is significant that the previous president, Moon Jae-in, refrained from close interaction with the United States on military-political issues, especially in the context of growing tensions between Washington and Beijing. However, the most serious contradictions are being observed in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, where Korean interests are not clearly identified and are rather reduced to maintaining a balance of power and stability. It is difficult to expect a declaration of war by the US administration against China over Taiwan or friction in the South China Sea, which means that an operational control plan (OPCON) cannot be put into effect which provides for the transfer of command of the armed forces of the ROK to the American military and the provision of assistance to the US Armed Forces against the Chinese PLA. The South Korean leadership preferred not to send warships to the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait for patrol missions or exercises, advocating non-military methods of conflict resolution.
Seoul participates in security discussions such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). The Korean side generally welcomed the move by its US allies to create a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), as well as AUKUS, a tripartite agreement on military-technical cooperation. However, joining the Quadrilateral Dialogue on Security Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific (Quad or Quartet) was considered expedient only with regards to non-military issues, with the status of an associate member or observer. According to Korean experts, by using such manoeuvring, Seoul was trying to maintain strategic autonomy and not explicitly take the side of Washington in the interests of continuing trade and economic cooperation with China.
At the same time, such a separation of the political and economic agenda turned out to be an extremely difficult task in the context of the physical presence of American troops on the territory of South Korea and the operation of the mutual defence treaty. In particular, during a visit to Seoul by US Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin in March 2021, Washington demanded that Seoul take measures to counter threats from China and North Korea.
The Land of the Morning Calm and the Land of the Rising Sun
US strategists look forward to forging trilateral security cooperation with Tokyo and Seoul, making them more closely involved in US military strategic plans and increasing the ability of allies to assist the US military in the event of a conflict with China (and Russia). However, the American leadership prefers to ignore Japan’s claims to the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Takeshima Islands), as well as the complete lack of mutual trust between its two Asian allies. A significant aggravation of bilateral relations was noted at the end of 2018, when there were incidents between the combat aircraft and ships of the ROK and Japan, and an exchange of sharp statements at the level of defence ministers.
According to the assessments of some South Korean experts, in the face of a change in the balance of power in Northeast Asia, Seoul and Tokyo should work out a compromise and strengthen relations in the field of security based on their alliance with Washington. In the Korean media, there are proposals to the Yoon Seok-youl administration to improve relations with Tokyo, mainly in the face of the allegedly growing threat from the DPRK. At the same time, the military circles perceive this idea very critically, noting that joint actions between the Armed Forces of ROK and the Japan Self-Defense Forces are hardly possible due to the low degree of coherence and the unwillingness of the parties to disclose a number of technical and tactical details to each other.
The deplorable state of inter-Korean relations remains a key problem for the South Korean leadership. A priority of the Moon Jae-in administration was the policy of appeasement of the DPRK through dialogue and mutual concessions in order to conclude a full-fledged peace treaty with the participation of the United States. Moreover, Seoul even did not rule out discussions with North Korea on the nature of military doctrines regarding the use of armed forces to coordinate positions and activity and strengthen mutual trust. Also, the previous cabinet tried to steer negotiations with the northern neighbour from the course towards increasing the capabilities of the national armed forces. However, they didn’t have much success, since if the development of a missile defence system could still be explained by citing security considerations, then tests of sea-based cruise and ballistic missiles caused a sharp reaction from Pyongyang. In addition to statements, the northerners also staged a real cascade of launches of ballistic missiles of various types and classes, as well as a demonstration of long-range rocket artillery.
Yoon Seok-youl’s administration appears to be taking a much less restrained and compromising stance. So, in early April 2022, the Minister of Defence Suh Wook, in a speech at the Strategic Missile Command, noted that “today the country has missiles that can quickly and accurately strike any target in North Korea”. This prompted an immediate reaction from the sister of the leader of the DPRK, Kim Yo-jong, and the secretary of the WPK Central Committee, Pak Jhong-chon, who condemned the madness of such talk and declared that the North would respond decisively with the use of nuclear weapons in case of provocations from the South.
So far, the hotline between the leaders of the Korean states remains active in the event that a settlement of a crisis is urgently needed. However, in the event that Seoul takes actions which Pyongyang considers a threat, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain an opportunity for negotiations.
Attack Capabilities at an Accelerated Pace
Over the past few years, the Republic of Korea has been heavily investing in the acquisition of new defence capabilities. The Medium Term National Defence Plan for 2022-2026 provides $271.5 billion in funding, with more than 90 billion dollars allocated to improve the technological level of combat systems. The Defence Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA) is responsible for improving the quality of military equipment, supporting military-industrial complex enterprises, developing exports and establishing partnerships with foreign enterprises. In particular, in March 2021, a study of opportunities for cooperation with the UK began in the development and construction of a promising light aircraft carrier by 2033. In April 2021, a prototype of the 4++ generation K-21 Boramae (“Young Hawk”) fighter was presented. The aircraft will be actively offered for export in the F-35, Su-35 and Rafale niche, the first deliveries for the national air force are expected in 2028. DAPA is also paying increased attention to the development of unmanned systems for various purposes, including reconnaissance and attack UAVs, as well as land and sea drones.
In modern conditions, the South Korean military is becoming stronger in its opinion about the importance and effectiveness of non-nuclear deterrence and intends to develop the ability to deliver pre-emptive strikes against the key military and command infrastructure of a potential enemy. After the United States lifts restrictions on the technical characteristics of South Korean ballistic missiles in 2021, the development of land-based and sea-based tactical strike weapons is inevitable, which can be deployed as early as 2025.
US President Biden said in May 2021, that the US-South Korean partnership extends far beyond the Korean Peninsula and is based on shared values and an approach to the Indo-Pacific. Given the exclusively anti-Chinese orientation of the idea of the Indo-Pacific and the clear intentions of Washington to weaken Chinese influence, one should expect the US to intensify work with its Asian allies and partners, among which the Republic of Korea occupies an important place.
It is rather symbolic that among the candidates proposed by Yoon Seok-youl as members of the government, there are many pro-American politicians. These include the former ROK ambassador to Washington Han Duck-soo, former deputy head of the JCS Lee Jong-sup, and foreign policy adviser Pak Chin, who are running for the positions of prime minister, defence minister and foreign affairs minister, respectively. In early April 2022, the president-elect himself had already met with the top US military commander in South Korea, General LaCamerra, and confirmed the course being taken towards strengthening the defensive alliance.
Despite Biden’s emphasis on the North Korean threat in a telephone conversation following the election results, it’s most likely that the Yun Suk-Youl administration still intends to counter a possible threat from the PRC as a medium-term priority. The likelihood of an unprovoked nuclear attack from the North is far less possible than the chances of the US-China disputes going into a “hot” phase, which would require Seoul to support Washington with troops and/or logistics. At the same time, in the short term, the North Korean factor will undoubtedly be actively used by Seoul’s new authorities as a justification for rapprochement with the United States.
In particular, in early April 2022, a strike group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was deployed to the Sea of Japan for the first time in five years in order to monitor possible North Korean testing of new weapons systems. This happened after the launch at the end of March 2022, arguably the most powerful North Korean Hwasong-17 missile capable of hitting targets on the US mainland. In May, joint exercises of the US and Republic of Korea navies may take place, to which Pyongyang will also react. It cannot be ruled out that Biden, within the framework of the planned QUAD summit in Tokyo, will also visit Seoul. At a meeting with his South Korean counterpart, the American leader will certainly present his own vision of peace and security issues in the Korean Peninsula, which, most likely, will only delay the prospect of a real settlement of disputes in Northeast Asia and the emergence of South Korea as a truly sovereign middle-range power.