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ROK-US alliance well on track, but real tests yet to come

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By Yun Byung-se

Three months into the presidency, the Yoon Suk-yeol government is in full swing with its foreign and security policy agendas, in contrast to the turbulent domestic political situation.

His team set the right tone and direction for a new course, including on the ROK-U.S. alliance, as well as on policies toward North Korea, Japan and China, and on other regional and global agendas, such as economic security, human rights and democracy.

The restoration and upgrading of weakening alliance is indeed conspicuous. The Biden administration lost no time in recognizing President Yoon's efforts with unusual speed and with high priority.

U.S. President Joe Biden's visit to Korea in May served as a sort of ribbon-cutting ceremony. It happened to coincide with the 140th anniversary of the two countries' Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce and Navigation of 1882, equivalent to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in today's terms.

This visit has been followed by a continuous series of mutual visits and meetings between top-ranking officials and politicians over the past two months, ranging from: cabinet ministers and secretaries on both sides, Korea's intelligence chief and even U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week, who unfortunately did not get a face-to-face meeting with President Yoon.

Such unusually frequent high-level engagements at the beginning of a new administration are a strong indication of confidence and mutual trust and tend to trigger a virtuous cycle. During my recent visit to Washington, I felt that the American policy community from top to bottom was very pleased and relieved to see high caliber professionals in senior positions in the Korean government and to have heart-to-heart communication and coordination on many sensitive issues.

Another moment for the deepening alliance was witnessed during the unveiling ceremony for the Wall of Remembrance, which was held in the Korean War Veterans Memorial on July 27, the day of the conclusion of the Korean Armistice Agreement.

This wall records the names of around 44,000 American and Korean soldiers who laid down their lives during the war. President Biden sent the 2nd gentleman as well as his national security adviser to the ceremony. President Biden's friendly gesture is a reflection of the U.S.' unshakable commitment to the ROK-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty, which will turn 70 years old next year.

Setting aside atmospherics, it is noteworthy that the Biden-Yoon agreement on a "Global Comprehensive Strategic Alliance" in May is now being translated into specific actions in various areas.

First, the Yoon administration has brought back the concept of complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) by North Korea of all its nuclear weapons and programs. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also issued a four-nation ministerial statement ahead of the Tenth NPT Review Conference now being held in New York, recommitting to this principle which had been dormant and shelved for the last five years due to North Korea's allergic response.

Second, ROK-U.S. foreign and defense ministers agreed to revitalize the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG) ― a "2+2" vice-ministerial meeting, which remained suspended since 2018.

This move will upgrade America's extended deterrence against fast-growing North Korean nuclear and missile threats. Full-fledged joint military exercises ― another suspension during former President Trump's time ― will not only be resumed but will be expanded in scale and scope.

Third, the U.S., Korea and Japan reportedly decided to conduct trilateral missile warning and tracking exercises on a regular basis to bolster their readiness against North Korea's threats. ROK-Japan foreign ministers met again in Cambodia two weeks after their meeting in Tokyo. Well-functioning bilateral ties are indispensable for trilateral security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

Fourth, on economic security, following its membership in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in May, Seoul proposed to establish a bilateral "2+2" ministerial meeting. Washington is working to form the "Fab 4" (or "Chip 4") semiconductor alliance comprising the U.S., Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and the first preliminary meeting is now expected to be held early next month.

Some of these recent developments represent a return to the policy direction before the Moon Jae-in administration while others are in response to the fast changing geopolitical and geo-economic landscape. What matters is that mutual trust is replacing trust deficit during the last five years between Seoul and Washington, as well as between Seoul and Tokyo.

For one thing, General Robert Abrams, former commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, spoke candidly before a Korea-U.S. Alliance Foundation seminar two weeks ago, about his frustrations with the alliance during his service between 2018 and 2021.

They ranged from an inter-Korean military memorandum to the suspension of all publicized joint military exercises and of strategic assets deployment to the Korean peninsula. He implied that Pyongyang's unbridled missile tests and potential seventh nuclear test are the price for such choices. I used to liken such abnormal situations to ostriches burying their heads in the sand.

A return to normalcy in the alliance relationship is a welcome development, but it is not a sufficient condition for a safe and comfortable journey to the next destination. In the coming weeks, we will be able to see some early litmus tests on the strength of the comprehensive strategic alliance.

First, how will it deal with China's challenge, in combination with Russia and North Korea, to the rules-based order and with its efforts to decouple the U.S.-ROK alliance? Foreign Minister Park Jin, during his visit to China this week, made efforts to advance the positive aspects of the Sino-Korean strategic partnership, which will mark the 30th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations in two weeks' time.

He also made clear our principled stance on several sensitive issues. Nevertheless, China's strong stance on them and wolf warrior diplomacy has not relented. Bilateral relations could turn into another phase of tension particularly on the "Three Nos" issues (no additional deployment of THAAD batteries, no Korean integration into a U.S. led regional missile defense system, and no trilateral alliance with the U.S. and Japan), the scope of strategic flexibility for the U.S. Forces Korea with regards to Taiwan and Korea's stance on the U.S.-proposed Fab 4 or Chip 4 semiconductor alliance.

Second, how will it enhance the credibility and assurances of extended deterrence in the face of North Korea's nuclear preemptive strike strategy. The reformulated ROK-U.S. joint military exercises in August and the revitalized EDSCG should serve to send a timely and powerful message to North Korea, benchmarking the NATO model or other formulas among allies.

Third, the door for diplomacy with North Korea remains open, but the prospect of its denuclearization is far from bright. Under these circumstances, the forthcoming "Audacious Plan" floated by the South Korean government should be thoroughly prepared, coordinated and in lockstep with the Biden administration.

Fourth, South Korean government should have an integrated strategy on economic security to take a comprehensive look at inter-linked issues such as the IPEF, the Fab 4 alliance, the Quad and the U.S. CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 as well as Korean semiconductor industry strategy. South Korea's decision to attend the Fab 4 or Chip 4 prep meeting early next month should be part of this overall strategy.

The road ahead will be very long and bumpy. Formidable obstacles and risks are already palpable and will continue to unfold. Seoul and Washington need to continue with a sophisticated strategy and roadmap to implement the latest agreement between the two leaders ― a new guiding post in upgrading our alliance in the coming years.


Yun Byung-se, former foreign minister of South Korea under former President Park Geun-hye (2013-2017), is now a board member of the Korea Peace Foundation and is a member of several ex-global leaders' forums and task forces, including the Astana Forum and its Consultative Council as well as the Task Force on U.S. Allies and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.




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