The South Korean and U.S. militaries have begun their annual major field training exercise, “Foal Eagle,” which will last until April 18. It includes the largest amphibious drill in Korea in decades, a 12-day operation code-named Ssan Yong, or “Twin Dragons,” that will involve some 15,000 South Korean and 10,000 U.S. soldiers.
South Korean military personnel approvingly told the media that the Ssan Yong amphibious landings underscore their country’s strategic significance to the Obama administration’s Asia rebalancing policy. Beneath the surface calm, however, many troubled currents will buffet both the amphibious exercise and the overall bilateral military relationship.
Unlike in some recent years, the 2014 Foal Eagle will not include U.S. aircraft carriers or B-2 strategic bombers in an apparent attempt to avoid stirring North Korea out of its current provocations pause. But Pyongyang has denounced the drill just the same, and yesterday held their own live-fire exercise along the maritime border, which they do not recognize. The Foal Eagle drills follow this year’s “Key Resolve” command post exercise, a computer simulation that ran from Feb. 27 to March 9.
The Obama administration has called the U.S. defense alliance with South Korea a linchpin of peace, stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet tensions persist over plans to restructure the U.S.-South Korean command relationships and relocate U.S. bases in South Korea, and over the respective capabilities of both militaries in the face of the evolving North Korean threat. In particular, experts in both Koreas as well as other Asian countries have questioned the credibility of U.S. security guarantees in the face of U.S. setbacks in Europe, the failure of the United States to take a stronger stance against Russian aggression in Crimea or Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and budget pressures in Washington.
Disagreements between Washington and Seoul are also evident regarding missile defenses and pre-emption. The South Koreans insist on building a missile defense architecture independent of the broader network that the Pentagon is constructing with Japan and other Asian partners. They are also seeking to acquire pre-emptive capabilities
to destroy North Korean missiles
even before they can be launched. In September 2012, Washington reluctantly agreed to allow Seoul to acquire longer-range ballistic and cruise missiles. A few Americans and South Koreans have called on the United States to return tactical nuclear weapons to the South, or even for Seoul to develop its own small nuclear arsenal, but most people, including this author, consider such a move counterproductive.
The plan to sharply reduce the U.S. Army from 520,000 to perhaps 450,000 active duty soldiers has aroused particular unease among South Koreans, since current plans for defending the Korean Peninsula envisage massive Army reinforcements flowing into the South to help defeat Northern aggression. Moreover, the number of South Korean forces is also declining due to demographics, particularly low birth rates, as well as reduced conscription requirements and other developments. As a result, the allies would be hard pressed to occupy North Korea should the regime suddenly collapse or launch a failed war against the South.
Obama administration officials insist that the cuts will not affect their commitment or ability to defend South Korea. In February 2014, Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox insisted that, “The importance of our relationship with Korea and the importance of our commitment to South Korea and the troops on the peninsula is not affected by our plans.”
Yet even U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S.-South Korea Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea, cited some cuts, such as the decision to retire the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane in favor of retaining the Global Hawk UAV, as harming critical capabilities, in particular for gathering intelligence. The North Korean regime’s reclusiveness makes obtaining intelligence especially challenging. In May 2012, Army Gen. Neil Tolley revealed that U.S. and South Korean Special Forces had parachuted into North Korea to spy on underground tunnels, military installations and government agencies. Within a week, Tolley stepped down from his position as chief of U.S Special Forces in South Korea.
The United States needs to reconsider some budget cuts
like the U-2, or provide suitable replacement capabilities, perhaps through joint research and development capabilities with South Korea. In addition, the Pentagon will need to revise contingency plans to allow for fewer U.S. ground forces—a good idea in any case given North Korea’s growing missile and WMD capabilities—and more standoff strikes from U.S. naval and air units. However, Washington should press Seoul to sustain adequate ground forces, since South Korean forces will have increasing responsibility for any territorial defense and post-conflict stabilization operation in the North.
Since many of the U.S. forces responding to a North Korean attack would have to operate from Japan or at least transit through Japanese territory to reach the Korean theater, maintaining good South Korean-Japanese security ties in the face of their historical and territorial differences is essential. Indeed, many of the U.S. Marines participating in Foal Eagle will join the exercise from their bases in Japan. Their participation was smoothed over by the trilateral meeting that President Barack Obama convened with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at last week’s Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague, the first time the latter two had met since Abe’s election.
The U.S.-South Korean alliance
also needs a better vision of how the bilateral partnership should develop in the future. Its managers understandably remain largely focused on the immediate North Korean threat, but they also need to consider what changes should follow from China’s growing military capabilities and ambitions and the U.S. realignment to Asia.
To this end, formulating a shared vision for dealing with Korean unification would push policymakers to consider how to address China’s rising power. The declining number of South Korean and U.S. ground forces, unless reversed, will increase the likelihood that Chinese troops will enter northern Korea in any regime collapse scenario to lock down any loose WMD material there and secure leadership and other assets. These could prove useful for post-unification bargaining over such issues as the number, type and location of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula, for instance.
Given their complex and interconnected nature, Obama will need to address these issues in his upcoming Asian trip later this month. The Foal Eagle exercise will highlight the military strengths of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. But that should not keep both sides from shoring up its weaknesses.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.