IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2019 Second Plenary Session: Korean Security: The Next Steps (File Photo - The International Institute for Strategic Studies)
The Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s North Korea policy and Indo-Pacific strategy will be revealed at the Shangri-La Dialogue, where Seoul’s Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup will seek closer cooperation with the US and other aligned nations.
The international event will serve as the stage for Lee’s first bilateral and trilateral meetings with defense chiefs -- including those of Japan and the US -- where he will discuss ways to enhance security cooperation in tackling regional challenges including North Korea’s mounting threats while preparing for the scenario of North Korea conducting a nuclear test in the coming days.
Lee will also have bilateral talks with his counterparts from Canada, China, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, the US as well as European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on the sidelines of Asia’s largest defense summit.
S. Korea, US, Japan: Security cooperation
The trilateral defense ministerial meeting between South Korea, the US and Japan will be held Saturday for the first time in two years and seven months.
The defense chiefs of the three countries last met in November 2019 on the occasion of the Sixth ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus held in Bangkok, Thailand.
The main topic for the three-way talks is “how to enhance security cooperation,” a senior official at South Korea’s Defense Ministry, who wished to remain anonymous, said on Wednesday during a closed-door briefing.
But trilateral military exercises in and around the Korean Peninsula are not a formal agenda for discussion, although the US and Japan could raise the issue.
The South Korean official clarified that the security cooperation refers to exchanges of high-level officials, joint training for humanitarian assistance and disaster responses and dispatches of military training groups.
South Korea has reservations about the trilateral drills, mainly in light of the historical and territorial disputes with Japan and domestic public sentiment.
The official explained that there will be “no major change” in South Korea’s stance on the issue. But Seoul “could adjust its stance to a certain degree” to leave room for maneuver.
Bilateral talks with US, China
Lee will also have his first face-to-face meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday and discuss ways to deal with North Korean threats and other challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as aligning their regional strategies.
The South Korean and US leaders will also put their put heads together about how to enhance the US extended deterrence and their combined defense posture against North Korea.
The bilateral and trilateral talks come as the US has repeatedly warned that North Korea could conduct a seventh nuclear test. US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim on Tuesday said Pyongyang “could test any time.”
But South Korea, the US, and Japan have been preparing for contingencies including a nuclear test during the Shangri-La Dialogue.
“Everything has been prepared. First, we will issue an altered statement,” the official said.
The South Korean defense chief will not hold bilateral talks with his Japanese counterpart notwithstanding the trilateral coordination.
But Lee will have bilateral talks with China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on Friday in Singapore and ask for China’s “constructive contributions” on North Korean issues.
At the same time, South Korea is also prepared should China raise a complaint about the Yoon Suk-yeol government’s plan to ensure the full-capacity operation of a military base that hosts the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor system at an early date.
But the senior official said the Yoon government will still push for the plan even if China calls for renouncing the decision.
Yoon’s N. Korea, Indo-Pacific policies
Lee’s participation in the Shangri-La Dialogue marks the first time that a ministerial-level official has participated in a military security dialogue.
The Yoon Suk-yeol government will utilize the international event as an opportunity to announce the direction and essence of its North Korea policy and Indo-Pacific strategy for the first time, the senior official said.
Lee will also propose how the Yoon government, whose main foreign policy goal is to make South Korea a “global pivotal state,” will make contributions to peace, stability and prosperity across the Indo-Pacific region.
Lee will deliver his speech at the sixth plenary session entitled “Common Challenges for Asia-Pacific and European Defense” on Sunday.
Military aid to Ukraine
South Korea’s plans to support Ukraine could be also at the center of attention at the Shangri-La Dialogue, which will also be attended by Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Dmytro Senik and NATO Military Committee Chair Adm. Rob Bauer, according to the senior official.
South Korea and Ukraine are scheduling a one-on-one meeting between Lee and Senik.
The Yoon government’s position is not to directly provide lethal aid to Ukraine. But the government has been requested by Canada and Poland to expeditiously supply South Korea-produced ammunition and ground combat weapons to replenish its depleted weapons stocks sent to Ukraine.
The senior official suggested that South Korea has been examining ways to step up military aid to the war-torn country.
“Our original stance (on the lethal aid) has remained the same. However, I would like to point out that the Defense Ministry and relevant agencies have been reviewing ways to provide more proactive support to Ukraine,” the source said.
Lee could discuss ways to provide military aid to Ukraine and share the outcomes of the internal discussions with his counterparts at the multilateral dialogue if the South Korean ministries share the view on the aid plan, the official said.