The UK and South Korea: Attention to Detail

UK Carrier Strike Group (CSG 21) and USS America Expeditionary Strike Group (AMA ESG) taking part in Large Scale Global Exercise (LSGE) 21 in the Indo-Pacific on 20 August 2021. Courtesy of APFootage/Alamy Stock Photo

The UK’s developing relations with South Korea will require greater attention to Korea’s own domestic politics.

The UK carrier strike group of HMS Queen Elizabeth and the Republic of Korea Navy’s Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship, along with an Aegis destroyer and submarines, participated in CSG21 for the first time in the history of the two countries’ bilateral relations. The deployment to the Indo-Pacific represents the UK’s tilt to this region, one facet of which is to ‘remain the most engaged non-regional partner on denuclearisation by North Korea and on sanctions enforcement’, according to the Integrated Review.

Central to this commitment will be the UK’s continued engagement with South Korea. This will require close reading of South Korea’s domestic politics which, in turn, are largely divided on how to deal with North Korea. Tensions with North Korea and inside South Korea over last month’s US–South Korea joint military exercises have once again flared, with Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, warning that the joint military exercises would threaten inter-Korean relations and that ‘a dear price should be paid’.

The latest iteration of threats comes at a politically sensitive time in South Korean domestic politics, with less than eight months left in Moon Jae-in’s presidential term. If London is to live up to its commitment in the Integrated Review, it should watch future developments closely.

Joint Military Exercises and Domestic Disagreements

North Korea’s threats divided South Korean domestic politics in the weeks leading up to the August exercises. While the Defence Ministry affirmed its position that joint military exercises would be decided in consultation with the US, a Ministry of Unification official called for the exercises to be delayed. The head of South Korea’s intelligence agency, Park Jie-won, also expressed support for a flexible approach to the joint exercises in the interest of continuing positive momentum with North Korea. On the other hand, the chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), Song Young-gil, argued that the exercises are defensive in nature and should proceed as planned.

On 5 August, a pan-party joint statement was issued calling for the joint military exercises to be postponed, on the grounds that the exercises have been a consistent obstacle to inter-Korean and US–North Korean relations. The joint statement was signed by 74 lawmakers from the DPK, Justice Party, Open Democratic Party, Basic Income Party and independent representatives.

However, the conservative opposition party, People Power Party (PPP), strongly criticised the pan-party joint statement. Tae Young-ho of the PPP (former North Korean deputy ambassador to the UK prior to his defection to South Korea in 2016) argued that suspending joint exercises at Kim Yo-jong’s demand would perpetuate a hostage situation under North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Furthermore, PPP spokesman Kang Min-kook accused the ruling party of making a strategic ploy ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for March 2022, stating that it is toying with the idea of holding an inter-Korean summit on the occasion of the Beijing Winter Olympics scheduled for February 2022.

Meanwhile, President Moon’s position has been less than clear, stating that South Korea should consult with the US with consideration to various factors. This cautious approach should be understood as a last-ditch effort by the president to improve inter-Korean relations. Indeed, there has been a flurry of activity in South Korea’s outreach to North Korea. The Ministry of Unification plans to propose institutionalising virtual meetings to restore dialogue and has already put in place a virtual conference room in the inter-Korean summit headquarters in Seoul. In May, President Moon allegedly suggested holding a virtual summit with Kim Jong-un in one of his correspondences with the North Korean leader. There are also rumours of plans to reconstruct a joint liaison office in Panmunjom, a border village between the two Koreas. The previous joint liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea was unilaterally demolished by North Korea last year. In this context, developments that could derail inter-Korean cooperation would be seen as highly costly for President Moon.

A Difficult Balancing Act

At the same time, South Korea needs to carry out the joint military exercises in order to regain wartime operational control (OPCON) from the US, a goal that the Moon administration had hoped to achieve before the end of Moon’s term. While the initial operational capability – the first of three phases of operational control – was carried out in 2019, the second phase to assess full operational capability had been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. In this light, a desirable scenario for the Moon administration was to carry out the joint exercises to prepare for the second phase, but in a manner that would minimise North Korea’s complaints.

Indeed, for the past three years, joint military exercises have been reduced in scale and have been focused on computer simulations, likely due to sensitivities in inter-Korean relations and the changing security environment in the aftermath of the Singapore Summit, where former President Donald Trump announced that the US would suspend military exercises with South Korea.

Both the Moon administration’s push to conclude the OPCON transfer within Moon’s presidency and the change in format have caused some tension with Washington. As former US Forces Korea (USFK) Commander General Robert Abrams pointed out, the OPCON transfer is not time-based but is dependent on the fulfilment of conditions. Abrams also warned that joint military exercises should not become ‘computer games’. The new commander of the USFK, General Paul LaCamera, also emphasised the importance of joint field exercises at his Senate confirmation hearing, stating that live training is ‘a lot better than the virtual’.

Tensions Ahead as the UK Tilts to the Indo-Pacific

How North Korea responds to the joint military exercises could be an indicator of its posture in the denuclearisation talks. In previous years, North Korea had responded to the US–South Korea joint military exercises by escalating tensions, for example, issuing harsh rhetoric or carrying out missile launches. South Korea’s intelligence agency stated that this time, North Korea could respond with a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Burdened by the pandemic and natural disasters, North Korea could resort to further missile launches for domestic consolidation or, conversely, turn to a more restrained approach to indicate willingness for outside engagement.

If North Korea does engage in a show of force in protest at the joint military exercises, the timing could coincide with the arrival of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, which carried out humanitarian search and rescue exercises with the South Korean navy on 31 August. North Korea has already expressed displeasure with the deployment of the warships in the region, and has called it a provocation. Such animosity is in addition to the existing bitterness after the UK issued sanctions on North Korean organisations that have been accused of being linked to North Korea’s prison camps.

As the UK begins to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific and strives to support its regional allies and partners in dealing with North Korea, it will need to deepen cooperation and communication with South Korea. Fundamental to this will be an accurate understanding of the competing voices within South Korean politics on how to address the North Korea problem. Close observation of and continued dialogue with different stakeholders within South Korea will be critical.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Saeme Kim

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