During his meeting with South Korea’s national security adviser here last week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work underscored Washington’s priority to restore balance to the Asia-Pacific region as well as the importance of its alliance with Seoul. In a separate news conference, he said the U.S. rebalance to Asia was real, and his country would further boost coordination with Asian partners including Japan, while stressing that the alliance between Seoul and Washington was “the linchpin of security in Northeast Asia.”
His remarks were yet another reminder to South Korean officials that they need a comprehensive, sophisticated and well-balanced approach to strengthening the alliance with the U.S., which has increasingly called for multifaceted and multilayered coordination.
Seoul and Washington have been firm in their resolve to deter any provocations from North Korea, which has ratcheted up tensions on the peninsula by firing off missiles and rockets a dozen times this year and is now threatening to conduct another nuclear test. The U.S. deputy secretary of defense’s visit was timed to coincide with the allies’ annual joint military exercise, designed to enhance their posture against the North’s threats.
Recently, a set of issues that require closer Seoul-Washington coordination have been readdressed.
A senior U.S. Treasury official made a two-day visit to Seoul last week, during which he asked South Korean officials to join Washington-led efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Russia over its intervention in Ukraine.
During his stay here, Work, the Pentagon official, called for an “extremely interoperable system” between the U.S. theater missile defense and South Korea’s own planned missile defense scheme. Seoul has remained reluctant to join the U.S.-led regional defense shield, though Japan has joined. China regards it as having been set up to intercept its ballistic missiles as well as missiles from North Korea.
Work tried not to give the impression Washington was pressing Seoul to join its missile defense program, but did not elaborate on how the allies could secure such extreme interoperability.
On the list of topics he discussed with South Korean officials was trilateral security cooperation with Japan. Earlier this month, Mark Lippert, the nominee for the U.S. ambassador to Seoul, reportedly hosted a three-way meeting with senior defense officials from South Korea and Japan in Washington.
Seoul officials may well find it hard to give satisfactory answers to Washington on these issues without displeasing Moscow and Beijing and causing domestic discontent by expanding security ties with Tokyo.
Further complications are bound to arise from having to draw a more active and favorable response from the U.S. in revising an accord on civilian nuclear energy cooperation and delaying the planned transfer of wartime operational control from Washington to Seoul.
In dealing with this complex set of issues, South Korean officials may need to review them in terms of the broader goal of bolstering the alliance, rather than being bound with calculations on the consequences of individual choices.
It would be an impractical and unwise approach to seek to get the better side of each and every deal. The best possible result may be achieved by prioritizing and giving proper weight to the issues, based on the principle of consolidating the alliance that will be needed to maintain peace on the peninsula and realize its reunification in the coming decades.