Earlier this week, officials from the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) conceded that the latter could “easily be dragged” into the Taiwan crisis if tensions escalate with or without the over 28,500 US troops based in the peninsula.
The fact alone that Seoul is located near the disputing China and Taiwan, not to mention its archnemesis North Korea’s close ties with Beijing, already places ROK in an unfavorable situation.
In an interview with CNN, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol proclaimed to strengthen closer ties with the US in expanding “freedom” and sovereignty. However, it wasn’t clear whether it would send its armed forces should China attack Taiwan, as this could also trigger “provocation” with Pyongyang—thus urging to deal with the latter first.
“In the case of military conflict around Taiwan, there would be increased possibility of North Korean provocation,” Yoon said on Sunday. “Therefore, in that case, the top priority for Korea and the US-Korea alliance on the Korean Peninsula would be based on our robust defense posture. We must deal with the North Korean threat first.”
North Korea has long maintained ties with China, which means it could either coordinate an attack or use the ongoing tensions to further its own military objectives. Furthermore, it has previously expressed support for Beijing’s claims over Taiwan and accused Washington of attempting to establish an “Asian NATO” that would bring crises such as the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict to Asia.
Since the brewing tension began, debates on whether South Korea should be involved have been circulating at home and abroad, tackling how Seoul would have to “play any direct or indirect role” if a conflict arose—with some saying it could find itself on the literal front lines.
During the interview, Yoon also said it would not be appropriate to ask the US to fulfill its security obligations first in the country as “both the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan are very important” to the superpower ally.
The US and ROK have long since had a mutual defense compact since the Korean War that broke out in the early 1950s, in which the latter became a host to thousands of US armed forces.
US Troops in South Korea to be Mobilized
A former US Force Korea (USFK) told Radio Free Asia on Tuesday that the US troops stationed in South Korea could be mobilized if China attacks Taiwan, all while maintaining deterrence against North Korea.
U.S. aircraft carrier arrived in South Korea for the first time in about four years in a show of force intending to send a message to North Korea pic.twitter.com/qGY7rvdC6B
— Naija (@Naija_PR) September 23, 2022
Former USFK Commander Retired General Robert Abrams (serving 2018-2021) said that the US will retain “all options” in determining what forces might be used in the event of a military conflict between its neighboring countries, “including those assigned to the USFK.”
Abrams’ remark came after USFK incumbent Commander General Paul LaCamera claimed to do “contingency planning” for all possibilities, which soon after triggered mobilization speculations.
“What begins in one region spreads very quickly within the region and around the world,” LaCamera said in a seminar last Tuesday.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s defense ministry stressed that the USFK’s top priority remained on handling North Korean security challenges and would maintain “close communication and cooperation to ensure its citizens” that the issue they’re worried about would never happen.
🚨🇺🇸🇰🇵 Just in: North Korea fires ballistic missile ahead of US vice President visit. pic.twitter.com/bTFD07ZjnB
— Terror Alarm (@Terror_Alarm) September 25, 2022
Responding to Pyongyang’s Provocation
The allied navies began their series of joint naval exercises in the East Sea Monday, a routine that the allies conduct to showcase their unity and combat preparedness against North Korean threats.
Participating in this Maritime Counter-Special Operations Exercise (MCSOFEX) include the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) Carrier Strike Group (CSG), Carrier Air Wing (CVW) Five, USS Chancellorsville (CG 62), USS Barry (DDG 52), USS Benfold (DDG 65) and staff from Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15 and Carrier Strike Group (CSG) Five, the US Pacific Fleet reported.
— Ambassador Philip Goldberg (@USAmbROK) September 27, 2022
CSG Five Commander Rear Adm. Michael Donnelly said that through the MCSOFEX, the US-ROK naval force could demonstrate its strength and enhance its respective combat readiness capabilities. The four-day exercise took place amid growing concerns that Pyongyang could be planning provocations and conducting activities such as nuclear tests or submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) as it did on Sunday towards the sea off its east coast.
“The Republic of Korea and US share one of the strongest alliances in the world and we grow stronger as an alliance because of our routine exercises here in South Korea and the close relationship and ties that we forge from operating at sea together,” he added.
Meanwhile, Rear Adm. Kwak, Kwang Sub, Commander of the ROK Navy’s Maritime Battle Group (MBG) 1, stressed how the exercise would improve both allies’ operational capabilities, bolster interoperability, and help maintain a “combined naval defense posture based on iron-clas ROK-UUS alliance,” reiterating LaCamera’s previous statement on the US security commitment to Seoul. “Two navies will continue to maintaining combined naval defense posture based on iron-clad ROK-US alliance,” he added.