Every few months, Asmolov’s digest examines how South Korea’s military relations are developing with its main ally and other partners in terms of military technology and politics. How these relations develop is more important for the author of these lines than Seoul’s lofty statements expressing the South’s desire for peace.
Let’s start by looking at the country’s relations with the United States and the most important issue, which is the cost of maintaining the American military presence that has only really been deferred. On February 12, 2019, during a Cabinet meeting at the White House, US President Donald Trump said that the South Koreans have agreed to Washington’s demand to increase the share they pay to maintain US troops in South Korea by 8.2%, and the percentage the South Koreans pay is only set to grow in the coming years. Yet the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has rejected the possibility that this could be followed by another sharp increase in the share Seoul contributes to keeping the American military presence on the Korean Peninsula: the agreement is valid for a year, and it could then be extended for another year if both parties agree. There is a good chance that the spending will remain at the current level, so it is still too early to say it will be increased for certain.
On the same day on February 12, the commander of US forces in South Korea Robert Abrams stressed that US troops need to be kept on the Korean Peninsula until a peace treaty can be signed, speaking at a hearing on United States Indo-Pacific Command and United States Forces Korea of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services.
On March 14, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan spoke during hearings of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Service, denying reports published in the Washington Post and Bloomberg claiming that the United States intends to demand its allies increase the amount they contribute to the cost of maintaining a US military presence by 50%. At the same time, Patrick Shanahan did emphasize that expenses should be distributed fairly.
Now let’s concentrate on the finer details. On February 15, USS Blue Ridge — the US Navy Seventh Fleet flagship and one of the oldest US Navy ships — arrived at the US military base in Busan, South Korea. According to the Republic of Korea Navy Headquarters, the USS Blue Ridge’s visit to the South Korean port city was organized as one of a number of naval exchanges between the two countries.
From 18 to 29 March, South Korea and the United States carried out joint search and rescue exercises, including exercises to rescue downed pilots. Maneuvers were carried out by the Boeing E-3 Sentry, a long-range AWACS aircraft (Airborne Warning And Control System) stationed in Japan. The two countries conduct these military exercises on a biannual basis.
On March 25, the first Legend class maritime security cutter of the United States Coast Guard — the USCGC Bertholf — visited South Korea’s Jeju Island. It arrived on the Island to participate in joint interdiction exercises with the Korea Coast Guard, and as part of a program to exchange experience. Bertholf conducts sanction-enforcement operations in the East China Sea to prevent illegal ship-to-ship transfers of cargo by North Korean vessels.
On April 1, 2019, South Korea’s Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo visited the United States. Jeong and his US counterpart Patrick Shanahan discussed the work of the established Special Permanent Military Committee (SPMC) on the transfer of wartime control of Korean armed forces (OPCON) to Seoul. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Republic of Korea General Park Han-ki and the commander of US forces in South Korea Robert Abrams agreed to hold monthly SPMC meetings to assess the capabilities of the Republic of Korea Army.
In addition, the Ministers assessed the security of the Korean Peninsula following the second North Korea–United States Summit, discussed the further measures necessary to achieve denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, reaffirmed their intention to continue to work together stressing the importance of allied relations, and agreed to increase the exchange of information on nuclear and missile tests in North Korea. Answering a question from journalists on whether or not reducing the scale of exercises will have an impact on the two countries’ willingness to cooperate, Shanahan said that he believes the new changes are not a reduction, but rather a capacity-building move.
Washington also confirmed that it is prepared to provide South Korea with a ‘nuclear umbrella’.
On April 5, the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea held a plenary session, where members ratified the draft of the tenth South Korea-US agreement on sharing the financial burden for maintaining the American troops stationed in South Korea. 139 out of the 194 National Assembly members present voted in favor of the hike. 33 were against the move. The share the South Koreans contribute was increased by 8.2% compared to the previous year, reaching 1 trillion 38.9 billion Korean won, which is presumably half of the total cost of maintaining the US military presence. The term of the agreement is one year.
On April 9, 2019, the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun once again noted that conducting the military exercises makes a mockery of the desire to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula. These exercises are a reckless act, and by carrying them out, South Koreas falsifies promises it has made to people and the world, “with its own hands”. In North Korea, the DPRK media also criticized the South Korean Air Force’s recent deployment of stealth fighter F-35A, saying that this thwarts efforts to improve inter-Korean relations.
Between 15 and 20 April, the Camp Humphreys US military base carried out drills involving THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense systems deployed to reinforce defense and counter North Korean missiles. According to a military representative of the American troops, the exercises allowed the military to demonstrate their combat skills and improve combat readiness. The exercises were conducted by ADA soldiers from the 35th US Air Defense Artillery Brigade. This points to the fact that the brigade moved one THAAD defense battery to the camp from another one of its military bases in southwestern Korea.
On April 22, 2019, South Korea and the United States began two weeks of joint air force training drills involving dozens of military aircraft from both sides, including the Boeing F-15K Slam Eagle, the KAI KF-16 and F-16 Fighting Falcons, as well as the Australian AEW&C E-7A Wedgetail, a long-range radar detection aircraft and control aircraft. The training was an alternative to the mass Max Thunder exercise, which the two countries conducted on an annual basis since 2009, involving about 100 aircraft and 1,800 pilots from both countries. In North Korea (DPRK) the exercise was referred to as a “treacherous act”, which is at odds with efforts aimed at maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula, and challenges last year’s Panmunjom and Pyongyang Joint Declarations. “These kinds of provocative actions could inevitably lead to a response from the North Korean People’s Army.”
On April 23-24, the 15th meeting of the Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue (KIDD) was held in Washington, where representatives of the two states decided to maintain the current level of readiness in South Korean defense by continuing to implement all the security agreements. The decision was made to test the operational capabilities of the South Korean Command in August to coincide with joint command and staff exercises.
On April 23-25, representatives of state agencies for arms procurement in South Korea and the United States discussed ways in which they could develop a bilateral partnership in the area of defense technologies, including the use of technologies related to Industry 4.0 revolutionary impact on defense research, as well as ways in which the two countries could work together by exchanging information.
On 24 April, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyung-doo met with a US congressional delegation in Seoul. The Defense Minister called on US senators to support the alliance between South Korea and the United States, having briefed them on the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. Minister Jeong Kyung-doo said the South Korean-United States alliance is stronger than it has ever been, and the current progress that is being made towards consolidating peace on the Korean Peninsula has been made possible thanks to the overwhelming support it has received from Congress. Minister Chung noted that establishing trust between the South and the North by implementing the military side of the inter-Korean summit agreement signed on September 19 (Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018) contributes to the achievement of a common goal for Seoul and Washington — the denuclearization of the DPRK.
Between April 29 and May 2, joint naval exercises involving the ASEAN and Asia-Pacific countries took place near Busan and off the coast of Singapore. Drills involved a search for vessels which could be carrying sanctioned cargo, which is a hint and a half that a “hunt” is taking place for the ships which are engaged in illegal trade with the DPRK according to the US and its allies.
On May 2, Jeong Kyung-doo met with US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley who arrived in Seoul on a visit. They discussed how the South Korean-United States alliance has evolved, which Jeong Kyung-doo noted is helping to establish a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.
On May 3, 2019, Uriminzokkiri — North Korea’s state-controlled news website — once again criticized the fact that military exercises are being carried out on the Korean Peninsula, referring to the American training drills for deploying THAAD missile defense systems. The drills are presented as if they provide an answer to the problem of the missile threat from Pyongyang, but they are in fact a means of making a preventive strike against the DPRK and neighboring states. “If the US really wants to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, it should remove its THAAD system from the Republic of Korea and cease all act of hostility.”
Apart from this, South Korean troops continue to serve abroad. On February 15, 2019, South Korea’s Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo visited the South Korean Cheonghae military unit which celebrated the tenth anniversary since its deployment, and South Korea’s special Akh Unit, which are both stationed in the UAE.
Now let’s take a look at South Korea’s military and technical partnership with other countries apart from the United States. Between 2014 and 2018, South Korea came 11th among the world’s top arms exporters. The findings of the report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) showed that the number of arms exports had increased by 94% compared to the previous four-year period, and the South Korean share of the world arms trade increased from 1 to 1.8%. A large proportion of weapons made in South Korea are exported to Indonesia, Iraq, and the United Kingdom. At the same time, South Korea has reduced its arms imports by 8.6%.
The South Korean shipbuilding company Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering received an order from Indonesia to build three 1,400-ton submarines. According to the Korean Agency for Defense Development, the contract is worth $1.2 billion. This is the second time the Indonesian government has placed this kind of order. The first submarine contract was signed in 2011. The deal Indonesia made in 2011 was also for three Chang Bogo-class vessels with a submerged displacement of 1,200 tons, designed exclusively based on South Korean technologies. The submarine which is planned to be built will accommodate 40 crew members and includes eight launchers capable of firing torpedoes, mines and missiles.
From 8 to 10 April, the eighth South Korean-Indonesian defense industry cooperation committee meeting was held in Seoul. Those who participated in the event discussed the system in place for airworthiness certification as South Korea prepares to export its Surion helicopters and other aircraft. The two parties also shared their views on a program for scientific exchange allowing scientists from both countries to work in research institutions in South Korea and Indonesia. Committee meetings have been held since 2012, when a memorandum of understanding was signed, launching its work. The event provided a showcase for technologies and developments from nine South Korean and seven Indonesian defense enterprises.
On April 18, Seoul hosted the fifth meeting of representatives from South Korean and French the military departments as part of a strategic bilateral dialog on defense, which dates back to 2007 when the countries began to discuss developing a military partnership. The last meeting before this year’s was held in Paris in 2017. The parties acknowledged the positive results their cooperation has delivered in recent years and agreed to work together across more areas with a high-level of contact, in training officers and on UN peacekeeping.
On May 1, the inaugural meeting of a joint South Korean and Saudi Arabian defense cooperation committee was held in Riyadh. It was attended by South Korea’s Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk and Saudi Arabia’s Assistant Minister for Defense Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Ayash. They agreed to boost cooperation and increase their exchanges. Suh Choo-suk also met with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman to discuss the situation in the Middle East in terms of security, and discussed areas where the two countries could cooperate, including in the defense industry. Khalid bin Salman also stressed the importance of cooperating with South Korea to implement the “Saudi Vision 2030″ development plan, which aims to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil and diversify the economy while also increasing the Kingdom’s military might.
In addition to the partnerships that have already been mentioned, the South Korean Hanwha Land Systems K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzer has scored impressive contracts with Estonia, Finland and Norway. Another firm, Hyundai Heavy Industries has sold two Jose Rizal-class frigates to the Philippines. KAI T-50 Golden Eagle trainer aircraft from South Korea has been sold to Indonesia, Iraq and Thailand, and FA-50 fighters (combat version of the T-50) have been bought by the Philippines. Oman and Poland have begun evaluating Hyundai Rotem K2 Black Panther tanks for deployment in their armies.
If South Korea puts its ambitious plans to develop the country’s defense industry into action, the country’s exports will exceed a record $ 3.5 billion. This would make South Korea one of the world’s top ten sources of defense exports.
On analyzing these deals and similar contracts, expert Felix Chang believes that Seoul could face new foreign policy challenges as South Korea develops its arms exports, given that other states, especially China, may consider that South Korean weapon exports run counter to Chinese national interests.
The rollout of advanced combat systems that would enable countries in South-East Asia to increase their ability to contain China could well cause ever greater anger in Beijing than the deployment of the THAAD system did.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.