US, South Korea Seek to Broaden Alliance, Bolster Indo-Pacific Security

As the Pentagon increasingly pivots its focus to strategic competition with China, the U.S. will look to expand its alliance with South Korea to increase security across the entire Indo-Pacific region, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said Dec. 2 during a visit to the northeastern Asian nation.

Austin, speaking at a press conference after the U.S.-Republic of Korea Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul, said he and his South Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Suh Wook, went beyond discussions about the threat posed by North Korea to include other regional issues.

“We discussed ways to broaden our alliance’s focus to address issues of regional concern. We shared our assessments of the changing and complex regional security environment, and we emphasized our shared commitment to the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific,” said Austin, according to a transcript of the press conference.

Suh also said they discussed involving third-party nations to promote regional security and “enhance multilateral cooperation.”

“In particular, the [Republic of Korea] and the U.S. agreed on the importance of ROK-U.S.-Japan trilateral security cooperation for responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, and agreed to explore cooperation means to connect our New Southern Policy and the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy,” Suh said through a translator.

Tensions between China and the U.S., and the U.S.’s regional partners, have increased as of late, Austin acknowledged, after recent reports about China’s testing a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that entered orbit in July. Most recently, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe touched off another controversy when he warned that a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan would mark “an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance” that would force a response, according to CNBC.

Suh, asked Dec. 2 if South Korea would also come to Taiwan’s defense in case of an invasion, said he and Austin did not speak on threats from specific countries in their discussions but reiterated their focus on ensuring security on a broad scale.

“The Republic of Korea and the United States are a global partnership, and we’re working closely together, cooperating to ensure the peace and stability of the entire world,” Suh said. 

What that partnership won’t include, Austin seemed to indicate, is a transfer of nuclear submarine technology akin to the Australia-United Kingdom-U.S. partnership—called AUKUS—in September. While the Dec. 2 meeting included discussions on how to strengthen the South Korean-American alliance, it didn’t include talk of nuclear subs, he said. 

Austin also demurred when asked about the possibility of the U.S. bringing tactical nuclear weapons back to South Korea to counter China and North Korea. The Pentagon withdrew the last of its nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 and has resisted calls to redeploy them by some South Korean lawmakers.

“We seek the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and we believe the best way to achieve that goal is a calibrated and practical approach to explore diplomacy with [North Korea], and that’s obviously backed up by a credible deterrent and military readiness,” Austin said. “And so we’ll continue to consult closely with the Republic of Korea and Japan and other allies and partners every step of the way.”