A positive development occurred between South Korea and the US last week with the signing of agreements to boost important parts of their relationship. The Seoul-Washington relationship is moving forward quickly, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in visiting US President Joe Biden in the White House on Friday. This summit opened a new era in defense relations between the two countries at a time when the Indo-Pacific region is drawing more and more attention.
New weapons systems, in addition to Seoul moving toward an indigenous defense industry, are positive developments for South Korea. This strengthening in the South Korea-US relationship is critical as both countries are investing in each other at a key time, with their economies recovering from the pandemic. These agreements are reflective of the general swing of global defense toward the Indo-Pacific.
Prior to the Moon-Biden summit, US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey and South Korean Deputy Minister of Defense Kim Man-ki held the Korea-US Integrated Defense Dialogue (KIDD), which usually takes place twice a year. The two sides assessed the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and policy coordination on North Korea’s military developments. They also discussed how best to create a new combined command led by a South Korean official instead of an American. Long in the making, such a move is significant in terms of building trust.
These defense meetings helped with the Moon-Biden summit. The leaders’ meeting helped to coordinate America’s Indo-Pacific strategy with South Korea’s New Southern Policy, which calls for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The logic is to develop opportunities for efforts in sustainable development, energy security and responsible water management, while building defense capacity.
Significantly, the Moon-Biden meeting resulted in the lifting of US restrictions on South Korea’s ability to develop robust missile systems. Seoul was previously banned from developing or possessing missiles with a range exceeding 800 km, but it is now free to expand the range of its missile systems in order to build its own defense capabilities.
Research shows that South Korea is enhancing its defense expenditure and posture against North Korea and also China within a broader security framework. Its defense budget grew 5.4 percent this year to $48 billion. South Korean defense expenditure is anticipated to register robust growth of 5.58 percent from 2022 to 2026, reaching $60.5 billion by 2026. The ability of Seoul to experience this type of growth helps the country’s economic situation by providing more opportunities for jobseekers.
America’s commitment to South Korea was made crystal clear in last week’s congressional testimony of Army Gen. Paul J. LaCamera. He said: “The South Korea-US alliance remains the cornerstone of stability and security in Northeast Asia. That partnership continues to grow through economic cooperation, mitigating threats to regional stability and fulfilling commitments to allies and partners in the region.” The termination of the missile guidelines reflects the Biden administration’s view on South Korea’s status and its role as a model nation for international nonproliferation, as well as a country deeply concerned with maritime security, especially in the South China Sea.
For the Biden administration, relations with South Korea are once again on a trustworthy level. The idea now is to bring South Korea into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) concept that includes the US, Australia, India and Japan. France recently joined Japan and the US for joint military exercises in Japan as part of the Quad. The Biden administration also wants South Korea to join such exercises, despite its two neighbors, China and North Korea. This is why South Korean leaders announced that they are seeking to work jointly with Japan and the US on trilateral defense talks leading to military exercises. No doubt the agreements reached in Washington will help to bring the Indo-Pacific regional security concept into a close-knit security architecture to protect against malign players in East Asia.
The South Korea-US relationship is also expanding in the space sector, as the technology curve demands greater near-Earth exploration. South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook this week met with US Space Command in Seoul and discussed ways to boost cooperation in space and other defense fields. Earlier, during their meeting in Washington, Moon and Biden committed to strengthening civil space exploration and science and aeronautics research. South Korea is also joining the Artemis Accords, which is a US effort to put humans on the moon by 2024, along with further space exploration. South Korea’s space industry, which is already advanced in terms of robotics and sensors, is set to take off as a result of this agreement. The Artemis Accord’s signatories include Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the UAE, and the UK. Its stated effort is about transparency, public registration and deconfliction in space exploration.
Overall, South Korean-US relations are dramatically improved, reflecting a new enthusiasm between the two countries to develop a security architecture in the Indo-Pacific that meets every member or partner’s security requirements.