This article is the third in a series of interviews to highlight the significance of the ROK-US alliance on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty, signed on Oct. 1, 1953, in the aftermath of the 1950-53 Korean War. ― ED.
Seventy years have passed since South Korea and the United States signed the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty, which serves as the foundation of their alliance.
However, the treaty has never been updated since its signing, even though risks surrounding the alliance have mounted at a daunting speed.
In recent years, there have been calls to update and clarify the treaty, but military experts, including Korea Defense Veterans Association (KDVA) Korea Chapter President Choi Byung-hyuk, believe that this is not the right time to initiate such debates.
KDVA was founded in April 2017 and is headquartered in Virginia. Retired U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti serves as its chairman and president. The KDVA Korea Chapter, with 10,000 regular and associate members, is closer to a lobby group advocating for the Korea-U.S. alliance through activities promoting the alliance to the two countries' citizens and politicians.
Choi points to the complex process of updating the treaty and the potential for subsequent controversies that may strain the bonds of the alliance, noting that this is why trust is paramount between the allies.
"The expressions and terms of the Mutual Defense Treaty are bound to be comprehensive and abstract, because the treaty has to encompass a big concept in a short form," Choi, a retired four-star general and the former deputy commander of the Combined Forces Command (CFC), said during an interview with The Korea Times on Sept. 12.
"Updating the treaty will require consent from the U.S. Congress. This process entails complex procedures and often involves heated debates between differing political ideologies. Consequently, it could potentially trigger unnecessary and dangerous controversies surrounding the alliance at a time when complex risks are affecting our national security, particularly those stemming from North Korea."
The Mutual Defense Treaty was signed on Oct. 1, 1953, and took effect on Nov. 18, 1954. Comprising six articles, it commits South Korea and the U.S. to provide military aid in case of an attack on either party and allows the U.S. to station its military forces in South Korea.
Despite serving as the cornerstone of the alliance between the two nations for the past 70 years, there have been calls for its revision to provide more accurate definitions of terms and expressions, as well as to address modern security threats.
"As the security environment is in a constant state of change, it is fair to suggest that we should consider including up-to-date elements such as economic security, space alliance, advanced technologies and other updates into the treaty," Choi said.
"However, it's worth noting that there have been no significant issues with the existing language over the past seven decades. This is because we have supplemented it with other documents and agreements."
One example highlighted by Choi is the Washington Declaration signed between President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden in April. The declaration enabled the allies to establish the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) that ensures Washington's nuclear-based extended deterrence against North Korea.
It was seen as a significant advancement in the alliance, because it represents a bilateral-level agreement on providing U.S. extended deterrence, whereas the Nuclear Planning Group between Washington and NATO requires the consensus of members when making decisions.
"I believe the Washington Declaration is a political promise which made daunting progress," Choi said.
"Since they are based on mutual trust, some people are saying it should be upgraded to a treaty. However, it was made public on the world stage as a political promise, and I believe it will be as effective as a treaty. Upgrading it to a treaty would require securing parliamentary consent from both countries."
Following the Washington Declaration, the U.S. revealed the deployment of its nuclear ballistic missile submarines to South Korea, not only to send a warning to the North, but also to provide assurance to South Koreans who may doubt the declaration.
"This is why trust is the most crucial element in the alliance," Choi stressed. "Despite compromising the secrecy of the submarines, they disclosed the location of the assets to convince South Koreans about the U.S. commitment to the extended deterrence. Actions of this nature within the administrative sphere can have an impact equivalent to that of a treaty."
In order to strengthen the trust between the allies, Choi said interested parties of the two countries should be tightknit in multiple layers, and noted that the KDVA is playing such a role in the nongovernmental sector.
One of the notable events that the KDVA arranged was the South Korean president's luncheon with Korean War veterans during his state visit to the U.S. on April 25. With approximately 300 current and former military officials present, Yoon expressed his gratitude to the veterans for their service during the war, which enabled South Korea to stand as it is.
On Oct. 12, the KDVA will host an unveiling ceremony at the Korea Military Academy for a monument to U.S. Military Academy West Point graduates who died in the Korean War.
The two countries' military academies have been establishing monuments for each year of graduates from West Point between 1945 and 1951. The upcoming monument will be for those who graduated in 1945 or 1946.
Also in October, the KDVA will set up the busts of heroes who contributed to the alliance at Imjingak Peace Nuri Park in Paju, Gyeonggi Province. Included among them is U.S. Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, who was relieved from his position after criticizing former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula.
"Our activities include discussions on the current part and future expansion of the alliance from the civilian side, so that the alliance can grow into a global alliance that encompasses economic security, advanced technologies and other debates," Choi said.
"Through discussions and engagements between civilians, we seek to build trust between the allies in multiple layers."