[Op-ed] South Korea Offers a Chance to Modernize Old Alliances
November 30, 2023
This article was published on The Foreign Policy on November 30, 2023.
There’s growing skepticism among the American public about U.S. commitments abroad, matched with growing doubt among allies and partners—monitoring political currents in the United States—about the credibility of those commitments. Even for those who still retain faith in Washington, concern is rising about U.S. capacity to meet its commitments, considering increased demands on U.S. attention and resources amid ongoing wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. Observers question if the United States can properly meet what it calls its pacing challenge—China—in the Indo-Pacific or beyond.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other U.S. officials have argued that the United States can walk and chew gum at the same time, mainly because of its unparalleled network of allies and partners. To uphold what it calls the rules-based international order, Washington has increasingly leaned upon existing alliances and partnerships that exist largely outside of the multilateral institutions that previously underpinned that order, such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization.
Instead, Washington has sought to strengthen long-standing treaty alliances (i.e., NATO as well as the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea alliances) and tried to reenergize or establish various minilateral bodies throughout the Indo-Pacific, ranging from the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) and AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity) and Chip-4 (a proposed grouping of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States). However, these groupings have achieved only limited traction and continue to face significant hurdles.
The United Nations Command (UNC), a U.S.-led multinational command headquartered in South Korea (formally named the Republic of Korea, or ROK), is often overlooked in discussions of the minilateral architecture that Washington hopes to construct in the Indo-Pacific. To be sure, there are good reasons for this. The UNC has a narrow scope, and its own history was marked by long periods when it was understaffed and relatively unimportant, even on the Korean Peninsula.
Nevertheless, the UNC has a much longer history and is far more institutionalized than other minilaterals, such as the Quad or AUKUS. If the broader multilateral architecture has fallen into disrepair, building a latticework of institutions and bodies underneath it may be the next best alternative. The recent ROK-UNC defense ministerial meeting provides an opportunity to underscore recent efforts to modernize the UNC.
The UNC was established in the early stages of the Korean War as a U.S.-led, multinational warfighting command, made up of 15 member states that sent forces and five others that provided medical or humanitarian assistance. However, UNC member state commitment quickly waned after the armistice was signed and most members withdrew their forces.
And following the establishment of the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command in 1978, all warfighting responsibilities were passed from the UNC to that group, while the UNC remained focused on implementing, managing, and enforcing the armistice. Over the next 20 years, it was deemphasized and understaffed.
In the early 2000s, South Korea’s remarkable political and economic transformation resulted in many UNC member states, such as Australia, Canada, and the U.K., strengthening diplomatic ties with Seoul and, by extension, recommitting in various ways to the UNC. Improved inter-Korean relations brought increased attention to the UNC’s role overseeing the demilitarized zone and military demarcation line between the two Koreas. Additionally, North Korea’s nuclear program meant the UNC’s armistice enforcement responsibilities took on added significance. Successive four-star U.S. commanders in chief of the UNC began to see increased involvement by the group’s member states as an untapped resource.
Starting in 2008, a multinational coordination center was established under United States Forces Korea, a U.S. unilateral command, but later folded into the UNC as part of the broader so-called revitalization campaign begun in 2015 (and ended in 2018). The center facilitates multinational planning and coordination in and outside of U.S.-ROK military exercises.
In 2018, the Canadian and U.S. governments co-hosted the Vancouver Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula. It brought together 18 foreign ministers from the ROK, Japan, and UNC member states that provided support to Seoul during the Korean War, marking the first diplomatic consultation based upon UNC affiliation since the war. And since 2018, successive Canadian, Australian, and U.K. officers have served as the deputy commander at the UNC headquarters, with another Canadian three-star general recently appointed to the position.
Under the new terminology of UNC “modernization,” the U.S.-ROK alliance has welcomed increased member state involvement on the Korean Peninsula, with Washington and Seoul aligning their messaging on the issue. For example, during the alliance’s Ulchi Freedom Shield combined military exercises in August, ROK and U.S. officials announced the participation of UNC personnel in a joint statement, a subtle yet noteworthy shift in strategic communication given that previous announcements were unilaterally made by United States Forces Korea.
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