Earlier this month, I co-chaired the annual Republic of Korea-United States Security Consultative Meeting in Washington, D.C., with the event in its 54th year and involving U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The SCM functions as a ministerial-level defense consultative body and has served as the symbol of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. It was launched to enhance bilateral security consultation in the wake of North Korea’s capture of the U.S. naval intelligence ship Pueblo in 1968, and has played a key role as the South Korea-U.S. alliance developed into the most exemplary alliance across the globe.
It is worth noting that this year’s SCM was held when the security situation was more complex and serious than ever. Russia is threatening to use its nuclear weapons as the aggression in Ukraine continues, intensifying concerns of nuclear war from non-nuclear states. Meanwhile, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is exploiting the chaotic situation faced by the international community, using it as a window of opportunity to advance North Korea’s nuclear and missile development.
Kim Jong Un has conducted many ballistic missile launches and elevated tension on the Korean Peninsula to the maximum extent, passing a new law on nuclear forces policy and declaring the first use of nuclear weapons. Such provocations made by the Kim regime are posing a serious threat to the security and stability of not only the Korean Peninsula, but also the region and the world.
During this year’s SCM, South Korea and the U.S. shared an in-depth discussion to further deepen and develop deterrence and response options against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, as well as the South Korea-U.S. alliance, under the common vision to pursue a global comprehensive strategic alliance. Major accomplishments from this year’s SCM can be summarized into the following four points:
First, South Korea and the U.S. pledged to deepen cooperation in various areas in order to strengthen capabilities that implement the United States’ extended deterrence commitment to the Korean Peninsula, while noting that the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, recently released by the U.S. Department of Defense, made it clear that any nuclear attack from North Korea will result in “the end of [the Kim] regime.” The two nations also pledged to increase credibility of the United States’ extended deterrence commitment through timely and efficient employment of U.S. strategic assets, while monitoring North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations.
Second, the two countries shared the view to expand combined exercises and training events to strengthen the alliance’s Fight Tonight readiness posture against North Korean threats. Both sides noted that the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise this year, conducted and merged with the South Korean government’s wartime preparation exercise, signifies a complete restoration of theater-level combined exercise that had been scaled down and postponed for the past five years.
We also assessed that various combined field training exercises, held in conjunction with the Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise, made significant contributions in solidifying a robust combined defense posture. Based on these accomplishments, we pledged to further strengthen substantive capabilities in executing South Korea-U.S. combined operations in 2023 by expanding combined field training exercises at the regiment level or above, including the Ssang Yong combined amphibious exercise.
Third, both nations concurred on promoting the role of the alliance for freedom, peace, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and the world. In particular, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense pledged to have close consultations as South Korea develops its Indo-Pacific strategy framework and establishes an action plan in the defense domain; they also committed to engage in coordination to develop defense cooperation with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as well as Pacific island countries. Meanwhile, both nations assessed progress in South Korea-U.S.-Japan trilateral security cooperation in order to respond to North Korean threats, and they agreed to continue bolstering security cooperation through efforts including information sharing, senior-level policy consultations and trilateral exercises.
Fourth, the two nations pledged for close coordination on North Korea policy in order to facilitate North Korea’s denuclearization. Last August, the South Korean government proposed its Audacious Initiative to North Korea. The Audacious Initiative aims to strongly deter North Korea’s nuclear threat, dissuade North Korea’s nuclear development through international sanctions and pressure, and direct North Korea to the path of denuclearization through dialogue and diplomacy. This is also in line with U.S. overtures to North Korea, which keep the door to dialogue open and seek for diplomatic solutions, while ensuring deterrence based on the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Secretary Austin expressed his strong support for the South Korean government’s Audacious Initiative. South Korea and the U.S. shared a common understanding on the necessity for close policy coordination between the two nations in order to accomplish denuclearization by changing North Korea’s perspective, and the two countries pledged to continue relevant discussions.
This year’s SCM was the first for the Yoon administration, which underscores the importance of the South Korea-U.S. alliance as the linchpin of South Korean security policy. Dynamic developments for the alliance were already forecast through many accomplishments up to date, including the South Korea-U.S. summit in May, defense ministerial meetings held twice this year, and the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group that was reactivated after years of a hiatus. I assess that this year’s SCM reflected the ongoing momentum for a stronger alliance, reaffirmed the ironclad South Korea-U.S. security commitment, and laid a solid steppingstone for the alliance as it drives peace and prosperity not only on the Korean Peninsula, but also in the Indo-Pacific region and the world.
The year 2023 carries a profound significance, marking the 70th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty. At the end of the SCM, Secretary Austin and I promised to make 2023 a historic year that marks another great leap for the alliance. I once again renew my determination to further deepen and develop the South Korea-U.S. alliance into a global comprehensive strategic alliance that protects common values of freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law. I am grateful to the people of South Korea and the U.S. as well as the international community for their support toward the development of the alliance.
Jong Sup Lee is South Korea’s defense minister.