US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong do the necessary for the cameras in Seoul. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – South Korea and America’s top foreign policy and defense officials on Thursday reaffirmed their commitment to their alliance and a joint approach towards North Korea.

The “2+2” Seoul meetings, featuring new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and their Korean counterparts Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Minister of Defense Suh Wook, followed similar meetings in Tokyo.

From Seoul, Blinken and Austin will part ways. Blinken will fly on to a hotly anticipated diplomatic engagement with Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday and Friday. Austin remains in South Korea for another day before heading to India.

The ongoing Asian jaunt is the highest-profile defense and diplomatic outreach of the nascent Joe Biden administration thus far. Its eastward focus – reminiscent of the Barack Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” policy – may please Indo-Pacificists.

Naturally, the customary bromides were paid to the excellence of the alliance in Seoul. Both parties reiterated their commitment to North Korean denuclearization and an early military-diplomatic success was celebrated with a photo opp.

But this was the easy part. Trickier issues lie ahead.

A demonstration fire of tactical guided weapons last March at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Photo: AFP/Stringer/KCNA via KNS

A critical shift in alliance command protocols remains indefinitely delayed and the US military is voicing concern about new North Korean capabilities. South Korea is keen to engage rather than enrage Pyongyang, but Washington is already criticizing the Kim Jong Un regime’s human rights abuses.

A broader backdrop is ongoing China-US hegemonic competition. Hints have been dropped and invitations offered to South Korea to more actively engage with democratic partners globally, notably in “The Quad” and the upcoming G7-cum-G10 meeting.

That outreach is welcome recognition of South Korea’s rising global status. But Seoul, which is sometimes accused of “having a trade policy, not a foreign policy,” has customarily swerved from the values-based diplomacy so often promoted by the Anglosphere and West in general.

These matters could mean diplomatic discomfort for Seoul going forward.

After the tensions of recent years – when former US president Donald Trump had demanded allies, including South Korea, massively increase defense spending and cost-sharing for US troops – the parties seemed keen to talk up the positives.

After the 2+2 meetings, a press conference and a courtesy visit by the Americans to President Moon Jae-in, a highlight was the signing of the recent defense cost-sharing agreement, under which Korea agreed to pay 13.9% more than in 2019. Disagreements over the cost-sharing burden under Trump had left related talks at a standstill for over a year.

The two countries maintain, “a robust combined defense posture…there is no daylight between us on this point,” Austin said during a televised press conference.

Referencing “a rollback of democracy and human rights around the world, including in Burma,” Blinken, also speaking at the press event, called on a joint stance “for the values and for the interests that unite us.”

US and South Korean soldiers in Yeoncheon-gun, South Korea. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images/AFP

North Korean rumbles

Washington’s long-awaited policy review on North Korea is expected to be complete within weeks and Blinken assured that the US side was receptive to input. Speaking to local reporters, he said Washington had an open mind on North Korean issues and that it was “being informed by allies like South Korea.”

The Moon administration has long sought to engage North Korea. In that, it was first aided by the stance of the Trump administration, which held unprecedented summits with North Korea. More latterly, it was hindered after the failure of a 2019 summit led to a freeze in relations.

Chung, the South Korean foreign minister who was appointed in January, was a key architect of the North Korea-US summitry in Singapore in 2018 and Hanoi in 2019.

Biden has yet to fully clarify whether he will follow his predecessor and meet Kim Jong Un.

The day before the South Koreans and Americans met in Seoul, North Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui released a statement via state media revealing that the US had “tried to contact us since mid-February through several routes including New York,” via telephone and email.

Choe said North Korea felt no need to respond. Complaining about ongoing military drills and US “reconnaissance,” the statement continued, in a reference to Kim-Trump summits, “We won’t give it such opportunities as in Singapore and Hanoi again.” Even so, the statement left the door open for more positive developments.

“We will counter the US on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill,” it said.

That statement followed a diatribe from Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, against joint South Korea-US drills – albeit her language was more restrained than that deployed against the drills in some previous years. The nine-day drills finish Thursday.

Separately, the US military has warned of major upgrades in Kim’s strategic arsenal.

North Korea “has achieved alarming success in its quest to demonstrate the capability to threaten the US homeland,” General Glen VanHerck, commander of US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said in a statement to the US Senate on March 16.

Though North Korea is sticking to a self-appointed ICBM and nuclear test moratorium, since the failure of the 2019 summit, it has paraded new ICBMs. Such arms require testing.

A screen grab taken from a KCNA broadcast on October 10, 2020 shows what appears to be new North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles during a military parade in Pyongyang. Photo: KCNA/AFP

China troubles

While Blinken made clear that he considered China a part of the solution to North Korea, he was also forthright on Washington’s stance towards its rising regional and global competitor.

“Beijing’s aggressive and authoritarian behavior are challenging the stability, security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region,” he said.

That kind of forthrightness is not often heard in Seoul, which is wary of antagonizing its biggest trade partner and which accepts Beijing’s “One China Policy.”

Regarding the informal Indo-Pacific “Quad” alliance of Australia, Japan, India and the US, which the Biden administration is prioritizing and which some consider an anti-China entity, Chung said that there had been no call for Seoul to join.

Blinken, however, added that on Quad-related issues, “we’re also working very closely with the Republic of Korea.”

Repeating messages earlier aired in Tokyo, Austin stressed the need for trilateral defense cooperation between Korea, Japan and the US. Suh, however, noted, that “Seoul and Tokyo have some history issues which remain unresolved.”

That is an understatement. While Asia Times understands that the Japanese and South Korean militaries have customarily cooperated happily, in recent years tensions have arisen which have frustrated the US, which maintains separate alliances with the two neighbors.

A diplomatic spat occurred when Seoul insisted a Japanese vessel strike its “Rising Sun” ensign during a naval review in 2018. In another brouhaha the same year, a Korean destroyer lit up a Japanese reconnaissance plane with its target radar. And in 2019, Seoul announced its exit from an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, only to be dissuaded by Washington.

Since then, and following the resignation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, widely considered an ultra-nationalist by Koreans, Moon has reached out to new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. But Suga – citing what Tokyo considers South Korea’s bad faith in rescinding past agreements and related compensation packages covering wartime forced laborers and “comfort women” – has reportedly not responded.

These latter legal issues caused an unprecedented trade spat and diplomatic discontent.  Given the firewall between the judiciary and the government in South Korea, it is unclear how either issue can be resolved. That leaves Seoul-Tokyo ties in disarray and Washington frustrated at the inability of the two democracies in the region to cooperate.

Possibly in recognition of this frustration, Moon said late Thursday he would work to improve ties with Japan.

South Korean protesters tear a huge Japanese flag during a rally near the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2019. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Command and decontrol

Austin made clear that Washington is not ready to grant “OPCON Transfer” – the long-running process of shifting wartime operational control of Korean troops from US to South Korean command.

The process was initiated by Moon’s late mentor, President Roh Moo-hyun in 2005, but was put on the back burner by the conservative administrations that held power in Seoul from 2008-2017.

Despite gaining renewed legs under Moon, there is no timeline in place, though it is known that Moon wants to finalize the process before he exits office in spring 2022. That may not happen. “All the conditions for this transition will take more time,” Austin said.

OPCON Transfer, which represents full military sovereignty for Seoul, is problematic for South Korea for two reasons. One, the process requires it to massively upgrade military spend – a process it has embarked upon. Two, it is a conditions-based, not timeline-based, process, and with the US the senior partner, Washington sets the conditions.

Moreover, annual joint spring exercises were not held in 2018 and 2019 to assuage North Korea, nor in 2020 due to Covid-19. They are underway this year, but as they have been scaled-back, a planned “Full Operational Capability” test has not taken place.

Seoul’s wider foreign policy has largely been restricted to key powers in the Asia Pacific region. A cynic might summarize it as: Stick tight to Washington; don’t irk Beijing; but feel free to irk Tokyo. 

“We have been pretty much mercantilistic – very trade-oriented,” admitted Lim Eun-jung, a professor of international relations at Kongju National Univesity. “Ideologically, we share many things with other liberal democracies, but China is a dear customer for us and this puts us in a very difficult position.”

It is not just Washington that might like to see South Korea engaged more closely with fellow democracies in multilateral forums such as the Quad.

South Korean Navy special forces in a military drill re-named ‘East Sea territory defence training’ at the easternmost islets of Dokdo. Photo: AFP/handout

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, host of this year’s G7 meeting, has invited South Korea along with Australia and India – countries that have recently had highly contentious issues with China – to London in June. The grouping has more of a unitary force than the larger G20, which includes China and Russia.

“The G20 may be more constrained, but with the G7, there is a sense of shared values and shared interests,” former UK prime minister Tony Blair told South Korea’s Arirang TV this week.

There are some expectations that the G7 may morph into a wider G10. But if the June huddle turns into an anti-Beijing talking shop, South Korea may prefer to keep its head below the parapets.

“They are probably less willing to be as vocal as, say, the Australians,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based international relations expert at Troy University.

Even so, citing public sentiment, he suggested that Korea is aligned with the wider grouping. “I don’t think they differ on principles and objectives – there is a lot more convergence than divergence,” Pinkston said.