U.S. – Republic of Korea (ROK) Defense Background
Secretary Gates will travel to the Republic of Korea (ROK) on January 14, 2011. He will meet with the ROK Minister of Defense, Kim Kwan-jin and conduct a courtesy call with the ROK President, Lee-Myung-bak. The purpose of the trip is to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the defense of the ROK and to consult on alliance defense issues.
U.S. - ROK Alliance
The U.S.-ROK Alliance is a key pillar of U.S. strategy for a region undergoing tremendous political, economic, and security-related change. This comprehensive relationship, spanning the defense, diplomatic, and economic spheres, continues to serve as a source of stability in the face of unpredictable and provocative North Korean behavior. For over 60 years the United States has supported the ROK as it transformed from a poverty-stricken agrarian society to a global leader in the information age, touting the 12th largest economy in the world with a dedication to democratic governance. Today, U.S. prosperity is inextricably linked with that of the ROK. The ROK is the seventh largest trading partner of the United States; more than 120,000 U.S. citizens live and work in the ROK, with the vast majority residing in Seoul; and, more than two million ethnic Koreans reside in the United States, playing an active role in our local communities and national economy.
U.S. Military Presence in Korea
Since the Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, the U.S. military posture on the Korean Peninsula and in the region more generally, has been successful in preventing major war from erupting again. Fundamentally, the presence of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula (28,500 troops) continues to generate a security dividend that has allowed countries like the ROK and Japan to flourish economically and politically, in spite of the persistent threat from the North. The U.S. military footprint in Korea today thus serves the same basic objective that it has for more than half a century. Our presence in Korea serves as a physical demonstration of our commitment to the security of our Korean ally, as well as a symbolic reminder to the region that the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific is a vital U.S. interest. It is our forward presence that most effectively communicates our resolve to defend our allies and preserve our vital interests in Asia. Our presence is far more than an important symbol. It stands as an irrefutable, tangible manifestation of our commitment to the defense of our allies and our commitment to peace and stability in the region.
The North Korean Threat
North Korea poses a multi-faceted threat to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the Asia-Pacific region. Pyongyang's large conventional military, active pursuit of a nuclear capability, ballistic missile testing and development, and weapons export activities -all in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions -are enough to cause serious concern, but these factors in and of themselves are not what make North Korea so threatening. North Korea poses a unique threat because of its proven willingness to match resources and capabilities with provocative, unpredictable behavior, and its continued export of illicit items to groups who seek to harm the U.S. and our allies and friends around the world. Recent events such as the sinking of the CHEONAN, the unveiling of a uranium enrichment program, and the artillery attack on Yeongpyeong Island highlight this threat.
Strategic Alliance 2015 (SA20 15) is an umbrella concept that encompasses and harmonizes many different alliance transformation efforts. The foundation of SA20 15 is a plan to transition wartime operational control (OPCON) of forces to the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff. Originally scheduled to transition in 2012, the United States agreed to postpone OPCON transition at ROK request, after assessing the strategic security environment and considering the many changes in the alliance to take place over the next five to ten years. Some of the related initiatives that support OPCON transition, which is now scheduled to take place by December 2015, will result in military plans and exercises that are updated to better account for the most probable threats we could face today and in the near future; other initiatives will strategically redistribute U.S. forces on the Peninsula; still other efforts will produce restructured command relations so that after OPCON transition takes place in 2015, U.S. forces in Korea will be comprised ofa warfighting command that supports ROK forces, who will then lead the warfight. U.S. forces in Korea will increasingly contribute to regional capacity building, maritime interdiction efforts, counterpiracy missions, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. U.S. bases in Korea will be strategically positioned to immediately address these types of contingencies throughout the region in a manner much more efficient than deploying troops from the United States.
Regional and Global Cooperation
Increasingly, there is also a regional and global dimension to our bilateral alliance with the ROK. Over time we have both come to realize that we share in common many interests that go beyond the Korean Peninsula. In the Gulf of Aden, the ROK recently led Combined Task Force-lSI, a multinational counter-piracy mission. As the United States has sought to support the Lebanese people by strengthening their government against the forces of extremism, the ROK has done the same, by contributing troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. In Haiti, a country that once provided development aid to Korea following the ravages of war, the ROK provided aid workers on the ground, helping that country rebuild, not only with financial assistance, but also with labor, materials, and technical expertise. The ROK is an active member of the Proliferation Security Initiative and has hosted PSI-related activities, it is a party to several international agreements promoting nonproliferation of WMD, and will even host the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012-symbolically, a complete repudiation of the path North Korea has taken. And in Afghanistan, the ROK provides an entire Provincial Reconstruction Team of more than 400 military and civilian personnel to support the stability and reconstruction operations under the aegis of the International Security Assistance Force. Our alliance with the ROK thus benefits the United States and the international community. The ROK has evolved to become one of the key underwriters of international peace and prosperity, helping to promote globally the values on which our alliance firmly rests.