Firmly maintaining the allied relationship to prepare for contingencies while promoting the denuclearisation of North Korea and easing of tensions has been confirmed by both the United States and South Korea. This is of no small significance.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Seoul and met with his South Korean counterpart, Song Young Moo. His visit came just after the two countries, amid a favourable atmosphere for dialogue following the US-North Korea summit, decided to call off their joint military exercise Freedom Guardian planned for later this summer as well as joint training of their marine corps.
During the meeting, Mattis emphasised the US standpoint that the cancellation will help increase the scope for promoting US-North Korea negotiations on denuclearisation. Song also explained the cancellation was aimed at “confidence-building and peace-settlement measures”.
Mattis and Song have agreed also to push these steps as long as the North continues “dialogue in good faith”.
The aim of drawing a positive response from Pyongyang through the cancellation of joint exercises is understandable. Considering the fact that concerns increased last year about a US-North Korea military clash, the moves prioritising dialogue and easing military tensions should be hailed.
The problem is that denuclearisation of the North is making little headway. Realising a meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a high-ranking North Korean official, which was supposed to have been held immediately after the US-North Korea summit, has been delayed for some time.
Mattis and Song had every reason to confirm that the UN Security Council’s sanctions resolutions must be carried out until concrete and irreversible steps toward denuclearisation are taken by Pyongyang.
They stressed that the two countries will cope with threats to the US-South Korea alliance and continue to maintain their strong allied defence system.
The situation remains unchanged in which the North concentrates its artillery near the military demarcation line with the South to confront US and South Korean forces. Even if large-scale joint exercises are called off, the US and South Korean militaries need to make arrangements not to decrease their quick-response capability. As for US forces stationed in South Korea, Mattis said the United States will be “maintaining the current US force levels”. This is highly laudable.
After his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, US President Donald Trump mentioned the possibility of US forces in South Korea being scaled back or pulled out in the future. This is nothing but a thoughtless remark.
Reduction or pullout of US forces in South Korea would significantly influence security arrangements in Northeast Asia. In light of China’s expanding military threats and possible ripple effects on US forces stationed in Japan, it is too early to discuss the re-examination of US forces in South Korea at this juncture.
Whether to transfer wartime operational control from the United States to South Korea is an issue left pending between the two countries. The defence ministers of the two countries have agreed to strive to improve the environment required for the realisation of this. It gave a glimpse into the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s desire to call for early transfer of command of wartime operations.
Washington and Seoul must discuss the transfer issue prudently in a way not to undermine their capabilities to deal with North Korean threats.