23.06.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On the results of the meetings the South Korean Minister of Defense held in Singapore

Meetings the South Korean Minister of Defense held in Singapore.

In early June 2023, the 20th edition of the “Shangri-La Dialogue,” an international forum for security in Asia, took place in Singapore, and witnessed a lot of developments of particular interest for this author.

A New Step towards Confrontation between the United States and China

It is believed that the dialogue between the two countries has been in a state of deadlock since the US State Secretary Antony Blinken canceled his visit to China in February 2023 after the United States tracked and shot down a supposedly Chinese spy balloon. Traces of the incident could have been seen at the forum.

First, the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin rebuked China for refusing to hold negotiations about Taiwan and territorial conflicts in the South China Sea: “I am deeply concerned that the PRC has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management between our two militaries … The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict.”

Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng replied by stating that the United States is responsible for the failure of the dialogue by tightening sanctions against Chinese officials and destabilizing the Asia Pacific with its military presence. However, “China attaches importance to developing China-US military relations, and our interactions and communication have never been suspended.”

Jing also accused Washington of stoking tensions by forging direct diplomatic relationships with Taiwan and increasing arms sales to the territory. “The US uses Taiwan to contain China and the Taiwan separatist forces solicit US support to push for independence.”

Difficulties also accompanied direct contacts between ministers. Firstly, Chinese Minister of Defense Li Shangfu (who is under American sanctions) refused the invitation to meet Austin. The two generals shook hands on the sidelines, but did not hold detailed negotiations, after which Austin noted that “a cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement.” On June 6, Li Shangfu held a short meeting with Lloyd Austin, but the parties could not reach any compromise.

Later, Li Shangfu stated that the United States uses politics of double standards to reach its own goals. Li Shangfu noted that the “so-called rules-based international order never tells you what the rules are, and who made these rules.”

In addition, Li Shangfu noted the Beijing will fight to protect the land that it considers to be Chinese: “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan and how to resolve the Taiwan question is a matter for us Chinese to decide. It brooks no interference from foreign forces… Any act to obscure or hollow out the one-China principle is both absurd and dangerous.” Jing Jianfeng also stated, “First, there’s only one China in the world, and Taiwan is a sacred and inalienable part of Chinese territory. Second, the one-China principle represents the consensus of the international community.”

In the meantime, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu stated that the United States not only supplies weapons and military equipment to Taiwan, but also actively participates in training of Taiwanese militaries. He noted that American instructors trained army personnel in new combat tactics, as well as in the use of the newest types of weapons. Joseph Wu also noted that Taiwan is ready to defend itself from Chinese intervention regardless of whether the United States will take part in this conflict or not.

Interestingly, the negotiations between Li Shangfu and Lee Jong-sup passed normally, and during the meeting with journalists after the negotiations, the South Korean defense minister “emphasized China’s constructive role for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and China shares the view.”

During the meeting that took place on June 3, the ministers agreed on the necessity to develop relations on conditions of mutual respect and to resume high-level exchanges, as epidemic situation in both countries improved. The South Korean defense chief noted that permanent provocations from North Korea are a serious threat for the peace in the Korean peninsula and the region as a whole, but since no Chinese response was reported in Korean media, this thesis clearly was not met with understanding.

No wonder that during his speech at the forum, Lee Jong-sup directed disguised criticism to China and Russia for neglecting commitments to bring North Korea to responsibility for the continuation of unlawful actions and provocations. Like the president Yoon Suk Yeol before him, Lee did not mention either of China or Russia directly, but noted that “some countries are ignoring North Korea’s unlawful behaviors that violate the rules-based order. This creates holes in sanctions against North Korea, passed at the UN Security Council.” He also stressed the importance of the international community displaying “resolute and united strength by passing UNSC resolutions. With such a united action, we need to change the Kim regime’s calculation.” The minister clarified that nuclear missile activities of Pyongyang increase fears about the spread of nuclear weapons which leads at the end of the day to a regional arms race.


Agreement on sharing real-time missile warning data

While criticizing North Korea, Lee Jong-sup emphasized importance of strengthening of bilateral cooperation in the security field between Japan and South Korea, and also of trilateral cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the United States that he considers to be “an inevitable measure taken to protect regional freedom and peace from the advancing North Korean nuclear and missile threats,” which deeply shake the structure of regional security.

A real step towards strengthening such cooperation was an agreement reached during the meeting of the defense ministers of the three countries, Lee Jong-sup, Lloyd Austin and Yasukazu Hamada, on June 3. It implied that in 2023, South Korea, United States and Japan should organize real-time sharing of North Korean missile warning data. For this purpose, “the three countries will hold working-level talks at an early date.”

It is assumed that this step will significantly broaden opportunities to detect and assess North Korean missiles, as the United States and South Korea communicate on this issue through the Command and Control Center overseeing anti-ballistic missile operations (KTMO-CELL) and the United States Forces Korea USFK (TMO-CELL). There is also a real-time data sharing system established between the United States and Japan, but due to “anti-Japanese tribalism,” there is no direct mechanism for coordination between South Korea and Japan. Until recently, the exchange was held via the United States by means of the US-ROK-Japan Trilateral Information Sharing Arrangement (TISA) of 2014, which does not function in real-time. Now, there are plans to establish a separate network for real-time data sharing with its main link being the United States Indo-Pacific Command located in Hawaii. It will probably actively use satellites. The new system is expected to transfer such parameters as the expected point of missile launch, flight trajectory, missile type and the destination. Although it has been declared that the system will not be used against countries other than North Korea, both Moscow and Beijing will now have some food for thought.

Aside from that:

  • Lee, Austin and Hamada “strongly condemned North Korea’s recent claimed space launch using ballistic missile technology as a severe violation of the UN Security Council resolutions that forbid any launches with a use of ballistic missile technology… With the consolidation of trilateral cooperation, they agreed to strictly react in cooperation with international community.”
  • The three parties agreed to run regularly “defensive training” for anti-boats and maritime anti-missile defense, and confirmed an agreement to “swiftly conduct maritime interdiction exercises and anti-piracy exercises,” as was agreed during work negotiations in April, according to the statement.
  • During the bilateral meeting between Lee Jong-sup and Lloyd Austin, an agreement was confirmed to run a common study of the second stage of the North Korean missile-carrier Chkhollima-1, which they plan to raise from the bottom of the Yellow Sea. Such scheme of cooperation is nothing new for the allies, as in 2012, the United States and South Korea formed a common group of experts to survey parts of the Unha-3 missile which included specialists from the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) and civil experts from the Korean side, and US specialists in Soviet and Iranian missiles.

Seoul develops bilateral ties

Apart from meeting his American, Japanese and South Korean counterparts, Lee Jong-sup held successful negotiations with representatives from Germany, Canada and Netherlands.

During Lee’s meeting with his Dutch counterpart Kajsa Ollongren, the parties discussed cooperation in the field of defense, including cyberspace and efforts to sign bilateral memorandum of understanding about cooperation in the field of defense. Ollongren expressed hopes for further development of the bilateral cooperation in arms field.

Canada’s Defense Minister Anita Anand expressed readiness to actively contribute to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. The parties noted that their countries closely cooperate in the fields of defense and security such as imposing sanctions against North Korea, and agreed to work hard on widening cooperation in such fields as arms production. Probably a result of such talks will be new deals to sell South Korean arms to these countries. Seoul intends to jump from the eighth place to the fifth in the list of global arms dealers.

On June 4, South Korean and German Defense ministers, Lee Jong-sup and Boris Pistorius respectively, held talks on ways to develop cooperation in the military production and other security fields. This has been the first meeting between the Defense Ministers of the two countries since May 2021, and both ministers stated that their countries are traditionally friendly states preserving cooperation relationships during a long period of time, and agreed to develop cooperation in the defense field for the sake of the “rules-based international order.”

New American and NATO attempt to pressure South Korea into providing Ukraine with weapons and ammunition

On the sidelines of the event, the EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell met with South Korean Defense minister Lee Jong-sup, after which Borrell wrote on his Twitter account on June 3, 2023: “Good meeting with Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup at #SLD23. Shared alarm at continued DPRK provocations and discussed Ukraine’s needs for ammunition.”

Western media instantly equaled the “discussed Ukraine’s needs for ammunition” with “agreed to supply weapons and ammunition to Ukraine,” but on June 4, 2023, the South Korean Ministry of Defense said in a statement that Borrell’s “claim that discussions on ammunition support for Ukraine were held is not true.” That is why the author considers the situation to be another Western attempt of wishful thinking and leaving Seoul with no choice. However, to discuss a question does not mean to get it agreed on, and it seems that Seoul replied to the latest pressure attempt by saying “no” or “not now.”

Apart from that, the question of the Ukrainian crisis has been discussed, but on the level and against the background of ritual condemning of Russia’s special military operation which Western leaders could not have avoided in a broad sense. Thus Lee, Austin and Hamada stated at the end of the trilateral meeting that Russia’s “cruel and unprovoked war of choice against Ukraine” is a serious violation of territorial unity and sovereignty “undermining the rules-based international order.”

In parallel, on June 5, the Chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff Kim Seung-kyum met the Inspector General of the German Armed Forces General Carsten Breuer to discuss the regional security, the war in Ukraine and bilateral cooperation. The parties expressed concerns about long-drawn war in Ukraine and agreed to unite efforts to provide stability in Europe and peace all over the world.

However, the speech of the Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas sounded differently, as she considered that Ukraine cannot join NATO as long as the fighting goes on its territory. “We support Ukraine’s route to NATO membership. Everybody understands that this cannot happen, as long as the war goes on. But we need more precise wording than was said in Bucharest”.


Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in history, senior researcher at the Center of Korean studies of China and Modern Asia studies of Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the “New Eastern Outlook” online magazine.

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