The United States and South Korea possess a longstanding military partnership and share mutual democratic principles. The United States has extended security assurances and military support to South Korea, a nation confronted with the presence of a nuclear-armed North Korea inside the Korean Peninsula. The alliance between South Korea and the United States has elevated their defense partnership. Given the prevailing geopolitical circumstances in the region, the partnership has enhanced resilience in the Indo-Pacific region and other relevant domains.
The US and South Korea are committed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, which poses a serious threat to regional and global security. The alliance between South Korea and the United States serves as a testament to their collective cohesion and determination to uphold regional and global security goals. In 2023, President Biden emphasized that a wide range of capabilities, including nuclear weapons, were supporting the United States’ commitment to provide deterrence to South Korea. With that goal, the presence of the USS Kentucky serves as a manifestation of the United States’ commitment to fulfilling its pledge, and it aligns with the many exercises, training events, operations, and military cooperation initiatives carried out by the South Korean and United States armed forces.
In April 2023, Yoon expressed South Korea’s unwavering trust in the United States extended deterrent pledges. Furthermore, Yoon acknowledged the significance, indispensability, and advantageous nature of the lasting alliance between the two nations. With that aim, both countries are enhancing defense and security cooperation, including by launching a Nuclear Consultative Group, increasing the deployment of U.S. strategic assets, and strengthening the interoperability of their forces.
Following these developments, the arrival of the U.S. ballistic missile submarine USS Kentucky (SSBN 737) at Busan Naval Base, South Korea, on July 18, 2023, underscored the enduring strength and vitality of the 70-year-old alliance between South Korea and the United States. This has served as a clear demonstration of the alliance’s unwavering dedication to promoting security and stability in the Northeast Asia region. Furthermore, it symbolized the United States’ commitment to protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of South Korea.
The U.S.-South Korea Strategic Partnership is growing with the continued North Korean nuclear tests and Sino-Russian unwavering support for the rogue state. It has signaled a sense of reassurance that South Korea and the United States are committed to responding decisively and robustly to the nuclear and missile threats posed by North Korea. The submarine port visit is a result of a meeting between South Korea and the United States in April 2023, held in Washington, D.C. These actions aim to enhance nuclear deterrence efforts on the Korean Peninsula. This will be achieved by the consistent deployment of strategic assets, such as SSBNs (Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles), and the use of the Nuclear Consultative Group. The two countries are also increasing digital and technological collaboration in the military domain, including through establishing a Space Cooperation Dialogue and launching a 6G Partnership.
After that, the Air Forces of South Korea and the United States conducted joint regular air drills named the Buddy Squadron Exercise for five days in July 2023. It included the use of modern fighter planes. The primary objective of these exercises was to enhance the combined operating capabilities between the two nations. This exercise included the participation of approximately 10 aircraft, including South Korean F-35A stealth fighters and U.S. F-16s. This event was the first deployment of South Korean F-35As for military exercises. The F-35A is classified as a fifth-generation fighter aircraft, characterized by its improved radar-evading capabilities and superior target-detection and precision-strike capabilities when compared to its fourth-generation counterparts like the F-16.
Both parties were engaged in live-fire exercises with GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions over the Yellow Sea during the exercise session. The objective of these drills was to strengthen the collective proficiency in executing precise attacks. These two countries share a common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region and have denuclearized North Korea, where they cooperate on defense partnerships. Also, the recent drills provided a valuable occasion to enhance integrated tactics between fourth- and fifth-generation fighters in the United States. Additionally, these exercises contributed to reinforcing the combat readiness posture for any potential nuclear attack from North Korea. In addition, it has enhanced the strategic capabilities of the South Korean military.
However, North Korea continues to perceive the U.S.-South Korea strategic partnership and defense cooperation as a threat. North Korea has responded to the U.S.-South Korea partnership by developing and testing its own nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, which it claims are necessary to deter and counter the U.S.-South Korea alliance. North Korea’s view of the U.S.-South Korea partnership is unlikely to change soon unless there is a breakthrough in the denuclearization talks or a significant shift in the regional security environment. North Korea views the U.S.-South Korea partnership as a hostile and provocative alliance that threatens its security and sovereignty. North Korea has repeatedly denounced the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, nuclear deterrence strategy, and sanctions regime as acts of aggression and war preparations. North Korea has also accused the U.S. and South Korea of interfering in its internal affairs and violating its right to self-defense.
Another adversary to this alliance is China, which views the U.S.-South Korea partnership as a strategic challenge and a potential threat to its interests and security in the region. The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea undermines China’s strategic deterrence and stability claims. China perceives South Korea’s participation in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) as attempts to contain and isolate it economically. Further, the strengthening of the U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateral cooperation is regarded as a hostile alliance aimed at confronting and pressuring China.
Moreover, China considers the support of the U.S. and South Korea for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations as interference in its internal affairs and a violation of the ‘One-China’ principle. China has responded to the U.S.-South Korea partnership by imposing economic sanctions and boycotts on South Korean companies and products, especially in the entertainment, tourism, and consumer sectors, to pressure Seoul to change its policies. China has also increased diplomatic and military engagement with North Korea. China’s view of the U.S.-South Korea partnership is likely to remain cautious and competitive in the foreseeable future unless there is a significant improvement in U.S.-China relations or a breakthrough in the Korean Peninsula peace process. China will continue to pursue its interests and security in the region while also trying to avoid confrontation or conflict with the U.S. or South Korea.
However, the U.S.-South Korea alliance may encounter some challenges. The different interests surrounding China are evident, as the United States aims to resist China’s expanding influence and aggressiveness, while South Korea endeavors to maintain equilibrium in its economic and security relations with both nations. Moreover, there are contrasting methods for dealing with North Korea, with the United States placing a strong emphasis on using deterrence, while South Korea prioritizes engaging in dialogue with the nation.
In conclusion, the US and South Korean defense cooperation and strategic partnership have grown stronger with the new geopolitical developments. The alliance is working as a deterrent against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. This partnership is based on a shared commitment to democracy and rules-based international order that supports peace, stability, and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific region.