Tuesday, March 21, 2017

United States & South Korea: Crisis, War-Games & Likely Consequences


A crisis within the Republic of Korea (ROK) on the southern half of the Korean peninsula has been exacerbated by the start of US-led war-games.

There are two major political problems within the ROK: the announcement on 10 March President Park Geun-hye was technically sacked and to be removed from office within sixty days, together with the siting of a US military facility, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in the country. They have divided the ROK. Millions of ordinary Korean people have taken to the streets in opposition to the Park administration in recent months.

The already tense situation on the peninsula has been exacerbated by US military planning. On Wednesday 8 March the US began annual war-games with their South Korean counterparts: Operations Foal Eagle and Key Resolve will last for two months and include the full mobilisation of the southern half of the peninsula.

The decision, by the ROK judiciary to remove President Park from office came as little surprise to most observers of the recent crisis. Following numerous allegations of corruption and abuse of presidential powers, Park had been clinging to office in the Blue House. She had been impeached last December. (1)

The outcome of the latest legal decision was expected following the indictment of Lee Jae-yong, hier of the Samsung corporate conglomorate and four of his top executives at the beginning of the month on multiple charges of bribery and corruption. It is alleged the accused paid about $40 million to those associated with the Park administration 'to secure policy favours'. (2)

The charges reveal a very deep malaise in ROK politics. Both the ROK and Samsung have been regarded historically by the US as strategic assets in regional foreign policy. The ROK is now, however, politically very unstable, lurching from one crisis to the next. Samsung, together with the present corruption scandal, was revealed in recent Wikileaks disclosures to be responsible for a US intelligence program called Weeping Angel which used its smart phones 'as covert listening devices'. (3) The revelations are hardly in keeping with good advertising and sales for a conglomorate which has annual revenue amounting a fifth of the GDP of the whole country.   

Secondly, the arrival of US missile launchers and other equipment for the siting of the controversial THAAD facilities in the ROK on 7 March, brought simmering tensions to a head. The hasty arrival of the first parts of the system were noted as being 'well ahead of schedule'. The US fear the election of a new presidential administration in Seoul not sympathetic to the implementation of the system. (4)

Most South Koreans do not want the THAAD system installed: they seek peaceful relations with their northern counterparts in the DPRK. Opposition to the THAAD system also came from elsewhere, far beyond the Korean peninsula. Accusations, from both China and the Russian Federation, fear an attempt by the US to alter the existing balance of forces in their favour. China has also accused the US of using the powerful radar surveillance system as 'a security threat' to 'gain substantial intelligence about its own military defences'. (5)

Diplomatic relations between China and the Korean peninsula remain a sensitive matter for the US. China, it should be noted, is the ROK's largest trading partner and a popular holiday destination for tourists. It is also the largest trading partner of the northern DPRK. Diplomacy, between the three countries has become very strong in recent years, despite US attempts to prise the ROK away from what Washington has regarded as adversaries.

The following day, annual US-led war-games with the ROK began: Operations Foal Eagle and Key Resolve will involve 290,000 ROK military personnel together with 10,000 US counterparts. The two-month 'field training exercise' will include participation between all three military forces and has been explained on official web-sites as an 'ongoing war game to hone its precision ground strike capabilities'. The fact the exercises involve the use of B52 bombers and computer-simulated air-strikes, leave little to the imagination. They are also not separate to other US-led military and intelligence manoeuvres elsewhere across the wider region.

The Asia-Pacific and adjoining Indian Ocean region is experiencing a rapid escalation of militarism: the southern half of the Korean peninsula has become a major flashpoint. The Park administration in Seoul, for example, has recently increased military budgets to seven per cent a year until 2020, which has amounted to about ten per cent of the whole budget of the country. (6)

While official media releases from the Pentagon prate about the size of the Chinese military budget, it only amounts to about a third of the US. In fact, the size of the annual US military budget, at $601 billion, remain far larger than all the other regional powers combined whose military budgets, including China, which total $453.5 billion. (7)

Warning signs the US is preparing for real-war scenarios are contained in recent media releases.

A recent Australian editorial noted 'the risk of military conflict at a number of flashpoints in the Asia-Pacific is growing quickly'. It further noted the region was experiencing 'a period of strategic danger every bit as worrying as the late 1940s before the Korean War, or the mid-1960s, which saw widespread war and instability in South-east Asia'. (8)

A major problem for the US is that their military alliances throughout the region tend to be bi-lateral. They are likened by senior officials from the right-wing Hudson Institute, an out-sourced US intelligence advisory organisation, to 'spokes in a wheel'. (9) What has caused the Pentagon serious concern is the lack of a 'multi-lateral security framework' along lines 'comparable to NATO'. (10)

The establishment of a US-led regional defence and security organisation would appear a high priority for the Pentagon as they seek to 'restore US strength and prestige in the Pacific and rebuild trust and alliances. America needs to reassert its traditional presence and role region'. (11) The US planning, however, seeks to use other countries to further 'US interests': regional hubs such as Australia and Japan are therefore vital for the Pentagon.   

The US have been very clear with their traditional foreign policy toward the region. A recent media release from Washington revealed Japan was 'also considering buying a THAAD system' to coordinate and strengthen US military facilities through its traditional northern hub. (12) The proposed system will operate in conjunction with already existing facilities housed in strategic locations. The US and Japan already possess signals intelligence relations in preparation for use with the ROK-based THAAD system 'in coordination with US and Japanese assets elsewhere'. (13)
It would appear the Pentagon has already earmarked the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) which met recently in Jakarta for the designated role of furthering its regional position. While established in the late 1990s, the IORA achieved little diplomatic importance. What has, however, caused the US to give the organisation greater scrutiny are recent forecasts which reveal Indian Ocean countries linked to the organisation are likely to become economic powerhouses by mid-century with an estimated sixty per cent of the world's population and a large proportion of the global workforce. (14) The US clearly do not want Indian Ocean countries rising to prominence and gaining capability to also challenge their traditional hegemonic positions in a manner similar to China together with favourable diplomatic positions with Beijing.  

There are two further factors to consider: The Indian Ocean region is also home to shipping-lanes, vital for access and egress of merchant vessels from all countries, linked though the Straits of Mulucca near Indonesia, to the South China Seas. They are regarded as highly sensitive by all concerned, including the two countries on the Korean peninsula. Moves by the US in February, therefore, to send an aircraft carrier strike group to begin patrols in the region 'amid tension with China over control of the disputed waterway and concerns it could become a flashpoint' show how high the stakes have become. (15)

It is also no surprise the US have, in recent times, taken to issuing media statements containing their specific intentions being spelt very clearly: in February, Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump advisor, stated 'there was no doubt that Beijing and Washington would go to war in the next five to ten years'. (16)

Secondly, the ocean is also home to the highly sensitive US defence and security installation on Diego Garcia, linked to Pine Gap. The US-led military facilities in central Australia remain one of the most important installations outside the US. It is no secret Australia remains a major hub for 'US interests' for this one reason above all others, as part of strategic planning for the US 3rd, 5th and 7th fleets with a stated military range covering the northern part of the Indian Ocean, the whole of Asia and the Pacific. (17) Any military planning for the three fleets automatically has Australian involvement.   
Recent coverage of the IORA summit also included an important statement about US-Australian diplomacy. It was noted 'Australia is right to pay more attention to Indian Ocean nations', and it should, 'show leadership through forums such as IORA'. (18)  It is also significant to note Japan has, at present, observer status within IORA forums, revealing a broader definition of the boundaries of the Indian Ocean region.

It is, likewise, also significant to note official Australian diplomatic terminology, in recent years, has emphasised the role of Canberra in the Indo-Pacific region.

1.     S. Korean president sacked,  
        The Weekend Australian, 11-12 March 2017.

2.     Samsung scion indicted in Rasputin scandal,
        The Australian, 1 March 2017, see also,
        Samsung scion in cooler too await trial,
        The Weekend Australian, 18019 February 2017, and,
        Samsung scion sweats on charges,
        The Australian, 28 February 2017.
3.     CIA hacking leak a boom for foes,
        The Australian, 9 March 2017, and,
        TV is watching you – CIA busted,
        The Advertiser (Adelaide), 9 March 2017.
4.     China weighs competing threats,
        The Australian Financial Review, 8 March 2017.
5.     US goes ballistic as missile fears drive Korean build-up,
        The Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 March 2017, and,
        N Korea missile salvo riles rivals,
        The Australian, 7 March 2017.

6.     Taking up arms,
        The Australian, 8 March 2017.
7.     Ibid., information from Credit Suisse.
8.     Editorial, East Asian military might,
        The Australian, 9 March 2017.
9.     Mattis takes reins as Americans face crisis of credibility in Asia,
        The Australian, 2 February 2017.
10.   Ibid.
11.   Ibid.
12.   The Australian, op.cit., 7 March 2017.
13.   Australian, op.cit., 9 March 2017.
14.   Indian Ocean group taking on water in a search for meaning,
        The Australian, 6 March 2017.
15.   US navy patrolling in South China Sea,
        The Australian, 20 February 2017.
16.   America must bring order to the high seas,
        The Australian, 23 February 2017.

17.   U.S. Seeks New Asia Defences,
        The Wall Street Journal, Friday-Sunday 24-26 August 2012.
18.   Australian, op.cit., 6 March 2017.

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