The Evolution of the US-ROK Alliance: Tasks in the Biden Era 1

Yasuyo Sakata

Introduction: the US-ROK alliance as a "comprehensive strategic alliance"

The United States (US)-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance is in its 68th year, since its inception in October 1953 when the US-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty signed after the Korean War. The US-ROK alliance which began as a local alliance focused on the Korean peninsula has now grown into what is now called "comprehensive strategic alliance." The "comprehensive strategic alliance" concept was adopted in the US-ROK Joint Vision for the Alliance at the Lee Myung Bak-Obama summit in June 2009.

Reflecting South Korea's growth and aspirations as a global middle power, with South Korea's GDP ranked in the world's top 10, the US-ROK alliance was redefined as a "comprehensive strategic alliance": "comprehensive," which means cooperation not only military, but also economic and social realms, and "strategic," which means cooperation not only on the peninsula (local), but more broadly in regional and global security. The tenets of the "comprehensive strategic alliance" has continued and evolved in the successive administrations under the conservative president Park Geun Hye, and now under the progressive president Moon Jae-in, though the emphasis may be different between the two political stances: the conservatives, focusing more on the "strategic alliance," while the progressives emphasize the "comprehensive alliance." 2

The evolution of the US-ROK alliance should be seen through the lens of "comprehensive strategic alliance" and the Biden administration comes at a critical juncture. During the Trump years (2017-2020), the US-ROK alliance was under great strain. It was neither "comprehensive" nor "strategic." Due to then-President Trump's personal pressure on traditional allies, namely Germany and South Korea, to substantially increase burden sharing costs, and the overt focus on engagement and talks with North Korea, deterrence and defense receded as large-scale joint military exercises were suspended. Besides North Korea, another bigger strategic issue loomed largely on the horizon, the US-China strategic competition and the Indo-Pacific (IDP) strategy, i.e., the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision. Even on this front, the US-ROK alliance was in flux, because South Korea or rather the Moon administration, while cautiously linking its New Southern Policy with the US IDP strategy, avoided the close strategic alignment with the IDP concept and distanced itself from the "strategic" aspect of the "comprehensive strategic alliance" concept.

The Biden administration has embraced the US-China strategic competition and the Indo-Pacific strategy, but with a focus on rebuilding the alliance network especially in the Indo-Pacific. Among them, repairing the US-ROK alliance relations is one of the priority tasks of the administration from the start. Tasks remain to realign South Korea and the US-ROK alliance into the Indo-Pacific network for the alliance to remain relevant on both fronts, the Indo-Pacific/China challenge and North Korea. So how will the US-ROK alliance evolve as a "comprehensive strategic alliance" in the era of US-China strategic competition? How will the alliance respond to the increasing security threat from North Korea? These questions also have implications for Japan's security and US-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation.

To examine these questions, this article will focus on the Biden administration's approach to the US-ROK alliance and feature two recent events, the Biden-Moon summit in May, and the annual Security Consultative Meeting held in December, both of which were first meetings in the Biden administration to set the tone for the US-ROK alliance in the Biden era. The Biden-Moon summit focused on alignment on the Indo-Pacific/China dimension, while the North Korean issue took a back seat. There are two dimensions in dealing with the North Korean security issue: first, deterrence and defense; second, engagement and dialogue (negotiations). The Biden-Moon summit in the spring confirmed the continuation of the dialogue approach, but nothing concrete. But as North Korean missile tests resumed this fall, deterrence and defense came to the fore. At the 53rd annual SCM, the two defense ministers specifically addressed the issue and announced new measures.

The US-ROK Summit (Biden-Moon Summit) (May 2021): Indo-Pacific alignment

The first summit between presidents Biden and Moon in May 2021, following up the Two-Plus-Two Foreign and Defense Ministerial in March, set a positive tone between the leaders to reaffirm and rebuild the alliance for the Korean Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific region. Four areas will be highlighted.

Reaffirmation of the Alliance: the Cost-Sharing agreement and the Missile Guidelines

To reaffirm the value of the US-ROK alliance, President Biden invited President Moon to a medal-of-honor ceremony for 94 years-old Colonel R. Puckett, Jr., a Korean War veteran, at the White House. Col. Puckett was awarded for his valor in the Battle of Chongjin in the winter of 1950 against the North Korean and Chinese forces. The ceremony was a symbolic gesture to show that the alliance was forged in blood in the Korean War.

Furthermore, two policy issues were addressed. First was the defense cost-sharing agreement (SMA: special measures agreement) for the stationing of US Forces Korea (USFK). Due to former President Trump's insistence on a five-fold increase, the SMA remained a sticking point during the Trump administration. The Biden team moved quickly to settle the cost issue, by returning to the multi-year agreement (six years, 2020-2025) with a 13.9 percent increase in costs compared to the previous year. 3

Another issue was the historic agreement to terminate the US-ROK Missile Guidelines. The missile guideline was first signed in 1979 to provide US technology to ROK missile development with a condition to limit its range and payload only allowing short-range missiles. But in the face of North Korean missile development, the agreement was revised repeatedly, the latest of which was in 2017 during the Trump-Moon years, which scrapped the range limit and increased the maximum payload from 500 to 800 kilograms. These limits were scrapped at the Biden-Moon summit and paved the way for South Korea to potentially develop longer-range missiles, such as the Hyunmoo ballistic missiles program. This will also promote ROK's space industry and satellite-launch rocket development. 4

Alignment on the Indo-Pacific: the Quad, South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait

Another highlight was the affirmation of strategic alignment on the Indo-Pacific by the two leaders at the first summit. This paves the way for senior-working level officials to explore more concrete options from the beginning, unlike the Trump administration which had a difficult time coaxing the Moon administration to commit to the Indo-Pacific concept.

Biden and Moon noted the value of the US-ROK alliance in the Indo-Pacific in the U.S.-ROK Joint Leaders' Statement as follows. "(T)he significance of the U.S.-ROK relationship extends far beyond the Korean Peninsula: it is grounded in our shared values and anchors our respective approaches to the Indo-Pacific region. We agree we will work to align the ROK's New Southern Policy and the United States' vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific and that our countries will cooperate to create a safe, prosperous, and dynamic region." 5 (italics added)

Biden and Moon administrations maintained the same formula from the Trump years, noting the two countries' "respective approaches" i.e., "to align ROK's New Southern Policy and the United States' vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific," in deference to Moon's reluctance on synchronizing with the Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP vision). But South Korea inched closer to the Indo-Pacific by acknowledging, at the summit level, the Quad (US-Japan-Australia-India) framework. The Joint Leaders' Statement acknowledged "the importance of open, transparent, and inclusive regional multilateralism including the Quad." This allows South Korea to cooperate with the Quad-Plus or Quad-like activities such as supply chain, noted in the next section.

The US-ROK Joint Leaders' Statement went further and acknowledged defense-related issues in the Indo-Pacific. While not specifically mentioning China, South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits were mentioned in the context of support for maintaining "rules-based international order."

The Statement noted US and ROK committed to "maintain peace and stability, lawful unimpeded commerce, and respect for international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and beyond." 6 Furthermore, to the surprise of many experts, Taiwan Straits was mentioned in the Joint Statement: "President Biden and President Moon emphasize the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits." 7 Peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits was mentioned in the US-Japan Joint Leaders' Statement at the Biden-Suga summit in April, so this was in alignment with the US-Japan alliance. But it is not clear what kind of commitment US and South Korea envisage regarding the Taiwan Straits.

Supply Chain, Tech Alliance, Bilateral Alignment (not Quad)

The most noteworthy achievement of the Biden-Moon summit was strategic alignment on the supply chain issue, namely in critical technologies, i.e., semiconductors and EV batteries, and biotech and vaccines. In the context of the Indo-Pacific, US-ROK made progress in economic-technology areas, but only in a bilateral context, not the Quad. The US and ROK established a bilateral supply chain task force, in parallel to the working group in Quad.

US and South Korean companies signed investment agreements on semiconductors, electric vehicle batteries, vaccines, totaling over 25 billion dollars, according to the US-ROK Fact Sheet. 8 President Biden enthusiastically thanked the four top business group leaders (Samsung, Hyundai, SK, LG) at the joint press conference, and President Moon made a visit to an SK Innovations EV battery plant in Georgia on his way back to Korea. In light of these developments, ROK MOFA reported to the National Assembly foreign affairs committee that the US-ROK alliance had developed into "comprehensive, constructive, reciprocal alliance." 9

North Korea Issue: Dialogue, Diplomacy and a "Calibrated and Practical Approach"

The North Korea issue was not at the top of the agenda at the Biden-Moon summit. In contrast to the progress on the Indo-Pacific, supply chains and investments, only basic principles were confirmed in North Korea policy. In the Joint Leaders' Statement namely three points were highlighted.

First, complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and full implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions, with sanctions intact. "Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" means pursuing denuclearization of North Korea, and addressing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, but it also assumes South Korea's non-nuclear status based on the declaration of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in 1992 and NPT. CVID (complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization) of North Korea was not specified as it is mentioned in the UNSC resolutions.

Second, the continuation of dialogue and diplomacy with North Korea. Continuity of dialogue was the most important issue on President Moon's policy agenda, but for President Biden it was not his top priority. The two sides managed to insert language that noted the "calibrated and practical approach" in Biden's North Korea policy review is "open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK to make tangible progress." 10 Furthermore, the 2018 agreements were specified to further emphasize continuity in the dialogue approach: "Diplomacy and dialogue, based on previous inter-Korean and US-DPRK commitments such as the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement, are essential to achieve complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula (italics added)." 11 Inter-Korean dialogue was also endorsed. Another notable move was the appointment of Ambassador (to Indonesia) Sung Kim, a veteran diplomat, as U.S. Special Envoy for the DPRK, announced at the joint conference. Third, is North Korea's human rights issue. In this issue as well, only basic principles were confirmed, since the Biden administration is at odds with Moon administration's limits on NGO activities sending leaflets to North Korea, etc. The U.S. ambassador on North Korean human rights has not been appointed yet.

The 53rd US-ROK Security Consultative Meeting (Dec.2021): Recalibrating Defense on North Korea and other issues

On December 2, the 53rd US-ROK Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) was held in Seoul between defense secretaries Lloyd Austin and Suh Wook. It was the first SCM for the Biden administration, and the last for the Moon administration. This meeting would set the tone for the Biden era, and will affect the next administration in South Korea. Following the Biden-Moon summit, the two defense ministers affirmed that the US-ROK alliance is "the linchpin of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific region." 12 One of the key outcomes of the 53rd SCM was that it focused on revamping or recalibrating allied defense toward North Korea, or the combined deterrence and defense posture, which had been neglected despite the dramatic increase of North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities these past few years. At the same time, the SCM addressed other issues in the Indo-Pacific as well as global issues.

US-ROK combined defense vis-a-vis North Korea (deterrence and defense)

In recalibrating US-ROK combined defense under the Combined Forces Command (CFC) toward North Korea, three issues were addressed.

The New Strategic Planning Guidance and OPLAN

Secretaries Austin and Suh, while committing to the "complete denuclearization of and establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula" and stressing the importance of "diplomacy and dialogue," focused on the need to reexamine and strengthen deterrence and defense to counter North Korea's heightened level of nuclear and missile capabilities. A new Strategic Planning Guidance (SPG) was adopted at the SCM to "guide military OPLANs (operational plans) to more effectively deter and as necessary respond to DPRK threats to the Alliance." 13 It has been over a decade since the last revision of the SPG. Based on the new SPG, the US-ROK joint chiefs will review the CFC OPLAN in the coming few years, including a major revision of OPLAN5015. 14

Secretary Austin reaffirmed that U.S. extended deterrence remained "ironclad," 15 but at the joint press conference, a Korean news media journalist asked if US plans to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea and allow NATO-type nuclear sharing, 16 reflecting some views in South Korea. 17 Austin avoided a direct answer but responded by reiterating US commitment to the "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," and negated the possibility. 18

Early wartime OPCON transfer postponed

President Moon, since he took office in 2017, pursued early wartime opcon transfer of the US-ROK CFC (Combined Forces Command). In a new plan for a "future CFC," agreed to in 2017, a ROK commander would take the lead and take over operational control, with a US commander as deputy commander. 19 In the three-stage assessment to complete the opcon transfer, the first stage (IOC: initial operating capability) was completed, but the second step (FOC: full operational capability) was delayed. At the SCM, it was agreed that FOC assessment would be conducted in 2022, 20 which meant that opcon transfer would not be completed during the Moon administration.

Relocating the CFC headquarters, Maintaining USFK force levels

U.S. base relocation also proceeded during the Moon administration. In 2018, the USFK and the UNC headquarters moved to Pyeongtaek (Camp Humphreys) south of Seoul, and the 50th SCM joint communique (2018) called it the start of the "Pyeongtaek era." 21 The CFC headquarters remained in Seoul, but at the 53rd SCM, it was agreed that it would relocate to Pyeongtaek by 2022.

Secretary Austin also highlighted the U.S. commitment to "maintain current USFK force levels" 22 (28,500 troops). At the press conference, in response to a question about the US Department of Defense (DoD) Global Posture Review, which was completed a few days before the SCM, Austin confirmed that there was no announcement regarding USFK force levels. 23 The Secretary also approved the permanent stationing of a previously rotational attack helicopter squadron and artillery division headquarters in the ROK, announced as part of GPR. 24

Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, Commitment on the Taiwan Straits

The two defense secretaries, Austin and Suh pledged to promote defense and security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region (and the world) "where interests align," and committed to promote "the cooperation between ROK's new Southern Policy and the U.S. vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region." 25 One highlight was the US-ROK defense commitment on the Taiwan Straits, following the US-ROK summit statement. In the context of protecting the "rules-based international order" and "international rules and norms," the two defense secretaries "acknowledged the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, as reflected in the May 2021 Joint Statement between President Biden and President Moon." 26 This was a message to China's actions, without naming China, but no specifics as of yet.

South Korea has been very cautious stepping into sensitive security issues regarding China. Why did South Korea agree to mentioning the Taiwan Straits in a defense document? South Korean media reported that there was strong U.S. persuasion, in light of repeated cases of Chinese military planes entering Taiwan's air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in November, just before the SCM. 27 At the press conference, Austin and Suh did not mention Taiwan in their statements, but an American journalist asked, "(w)ould South Korea's military ...come to Taiwan's defense if China attacked?" Defense Minister Suh avoided a direct response and said that "rather than discussing threats from specific countries, we are continuing to explore ...potential cooperation areas between our government's New Southern Policy and the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy." 28

Space and Cyber, Science, HADR, PKO (Global cooperation)

The SCM addressed not only the Korean peninsula and regional cooperation, but also global cooperation. In particular, cooperation in space and cyber, AI and next generation mobile communication, and other emerging technologies, as well as UN PKO, anti-piracy, HADR. The Joint Communique also mentioned ROK's "Operation Miracle" from Afghanistan and DoD support. 29


The US-ROK alliance continues to evolve as a "comprehensive strategic alliance" in the Biden era. But how will the alliance evolve in the Indo-Pacific era? The process has just started. How will the alliance seek to balance both the Indo-Pacific and the Korean Peninsula, North Korea and the Taiwan Straits.

For the US-ROK alliance to balance the diversity of threats, in both the Indo-Pacific and the Korean peninsula, US-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation holds the key. The U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation is a factor in the US-Japan alliance but also of the U.S.-ROK alliance. Trilateral cooperation is specifically mentioned in the US-ROK summit and SCM documents, but concrete action is yet to come. South Korea, especially the Moon government's cautious attitude toward trilateral cooperation and Japan-ROK bilateral woes hinder its prospects.

The US-ROK Joint Leaders' Statement highlights US-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation, but its value is not quite clear, somewhere between North Korea and the Indo-Pacific, but the "Indo-Pacific" is not specified. At the summit, Presidents Biden and Moon underscored "the fundamental importance of U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation for addressing the DPRK, protecting our shared security and prosperity, upholding common values, and bolstering the rules-based order." 30 In the 53rd SCM communique, Defense Secretary Austin and Defense Minister Suh noted that US-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation "remains critical to regional stability and committed to continuing trilateral cooperation such as information sharing, high-level policy dialogue---including defense trilateral talks (DTT) and Trilateral Defense Ministerials---combined exercises, and personnel exchanges to achieve the complete denuclearization on the Korean peninsula as well as to advance peace and security of Northeast Asia," 31 but no mention of the Indo-Pacific.

While the US-ROK alliance begins to address Indo-Pacific issues, a refocus on the North Korean deterrence and defense has begun due to heightened level of the nuclear and missile program. Japan should also keep watch on how the US-ROK alliance evolves, and make further efforts to restore and redefine US-Japan-Korea trilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific era.

(Professor, Kanda University of International Studies)

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