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U.S., South Korean Defense Leaders Assess State of Alliance

Dec. 2, 2021 | BY Jim Garamone , DOD News

In a complex and changing security environment in the Indo-Pacific, one constant is the ironclad alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said today in Seoul.

The secretary and Minister of National Defense Suh Wook spoke after the 53rd Security Consultative Meeting between the two allies. 

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While the alliance is solid, both men stressed the ways the alliance is changing as it responds to new capabilities, new challenges and new conditions.

In the past, the U.S.-South Korea alliance was solely focused on deterring North Korean aggression. While this is still important, South Korea is a rising power and Austin said the nation is a force for stability not only on the Korean peninsula, but throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Suh noted the South Korean military participated in the evacuation from Kabul in August, sending C-130s and personnel.

The meeting covered a variety of issues, Austin said. "We discussed a wide range of topics including our unity in the face of the threat from North Korea, and our progress in our bilateral alliances, readiness and training exercises, and the ways that this alliance contributes to stability throughout the Indo-Pacific," he said. "We also reaffirmed our shared assessment that [North Korea] is continuing to advance its missile and weapons programs, which is increasingly destabilizing for regional security."

Two men stand at two different lecterns in front of a crowd.
Press Conference Partners
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and South Korean Minister of Defense Suh Wook answer questions during a press conference after the 53rd U.S.-Republic of Korea Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 2, 2021.
Photo By: Chad McNeeley, DOD
VIRIN: 211202-D-TT977-0550

The two allies remain committed to a diplomatic approach to North Korea, Austin said, but a strong deterrent posture is needed to allow the diplomatic track to work. "We continue to call upon [North Korea] to engage in dialogue, but we also discuss measures to enhance our combined deterrence posture and to defend against the full range of threats," he said.

The Korean peninsula is one of the places on the globe where conflict could start with little notice, and the forces in South Korea — including 28,000 Americans — must be ready to "fight tonight." The two defense officials discussed the "fight-tonight" readiness of the combined force and looked at ways to enhance that readiness. "The minister and I also agreed to conduct a full operational capability assessment of our future combined forces command during next fall's combined command post training," Austin said. "This represents an important task toward meeting the conditions necessary for [operational control] transition."

Operational control, or OPCON, transition would shift wartime command of South Korean forces from the United States to South Korea. This has long been a goal for the two nations and both Austin and Suh said the conditions-based transfer is getting closer. Suh said through a translator that "tremendous progress has been made to satisfy the conditions for OPCON transition and discuss the ways ahead. Considering this changed situation, the ROK and the U.S. have pushed ahead with a comprehensive joint study on conditions-based OPCON Transition Plan capabilities."

Men hold their fists in the air. Some are wearing masks.
Partnership Pose
Gen. Won In-choul, South Korean chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (from left), Minister of National Defense Suh Wook, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff pose for a photo with South Korean soldiers after a Taekwondo demonstration at the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 2, 2021. Austin is visiting Korea to meet with senior government leaders at the 53rd U.S.-Republic of Korea Security Consultative Meeting [SCM] and visit U.S. troops on the peninsula.
Photo By: Chad J. McNeeley, DOD
VIRIN: 211202-D-TT977-0847

Looking beyond the peninsula, both nations committed to the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. "We also reaffirm the importance of deepening trilateral security cooperation among the U.S., the Republic of Korea and Japan," Austin said.

Austin and Suh also discussed the size of the U.S. military presence in South Korea, the return of Yongsan Garrison to Korea in 2022 and the transfer of Combined Forces Command headquarters from Yongsan to Camp Humphreys next year.

Austin was asked if China's hypersonic missile program complicates the situation in Korea. "As we've said before, we have concerns about the military capabilities that the [Peoples Republic of China] continues to pursue," he said. "And the pursuit of those capabilities increases tensions in the region. We know that China conducted a test of a hypersonic weapon on the 27th of July. It just underscores why we consider the PRC to be our pacing challenge and will continue to maintain the capabilities to defend and deter against a range of potential threats from the PRC to ourselves and to our allies."