South Korea and America are unlikely to return to major joint military exercises anytime soon, casting a potential pall over the future of U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) military cooperation.
As reported earlier this week by The Korea Herald, U.S. Army chief General James McConville raised doubts over the feasibility of continued joint large-scale drills between ROK and U.S. forces in the post-pandemic world: “We think those (larger exercises) are very, very important. But COVID-19 introduced a kind of a new fog and friction. That just makes these exercises a little more difficult,” he said at a teleconference hosted by Defense News.
Washington and Seoul typically hold two combined major military exercises every year— the first in March, and the second around August. This year’s springtime exercises were cancelled outright due to ongoing coronavirus concerns, while the summer drills were greatly scaled down and delayed by several weeks.
But exactly what role do these exercises play, and what does their indefinite postponement portend for South Korean security and the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula? There are several factors at work.
First, consider the broader regional context. Not only does North Korea have no apparent intent to slow down the rapid pace of its missile tests, but Pyongyang’s missile arsenal is steadily getting bigger and better. Meanwhile, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy continues to stage large-scale military drills near South Korean waters. At a time when ROK’s neighbors are boldly asserting their military capabilities, the relaxation of joint exercises potentially weakens South Korea’s security posture.
A temporary halt in joint drills normally wouldn’t be a cause for long-term concerns, but the current lull in exercises comes on the heels of a larger cost-sharing debate that highlights the present ambiguities surrounding the future of the U.S. security commitment to South Korea. Since 2017, the Trump administration has sought to renegotiate the financial terms on which U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea; earlier this summer, the White House expressed its interest in reducing its military footprint on the Korean Peninsula. To further complicate matters, wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korea’s armed forces is currently under the joint custody of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC). The Moon Jae-In administration seeks to restore wartime OPCON to Seoul, but the transfer requires two rounds of large-scale preparedness exercises—a Full Operational Capability (FOC) test, followed by a Full Mission Capability (FMC) test. The first of these specialized drills was scheduled for the summer of 2020, but has since been postponed in light of the Coronavirus.
It is increasingly clear that the ROK-U.S. security relationship is in a state of geopolitical flux that extends far beyond the immediate logistical challenges posed by the pandemic. Nevertheless, the unprecedented turbulence facing Washington and Seoul may provide the impetus for a much-needed diplomatic reset that would leave both sides better off in the long run. The OPCON transfer is only one part of Seoul’s emerging effort to preserve the postwar U.S. security alliance while militarily disentangling itself from Washington, slowly but surely asserting itself as a regional military power with the capacity to shape outcomes on the Korean Peninsula and East Asia.
Regardless of who wins in the upcoming November election, Washington has good reason to embrace this trend rather than discourage it. Experts have compellingly argued that a more independent South Korea stands a better chance of reaching a stable settlement with its Northern counterpart. By shifting its military center of gravity away from Washington and back within its own borders, Seoul also acquires a more solid political foundation on which to effectively engage both China and the U.S. without being subsumed by them.
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as a research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a PhD student in History at American University.