► What motivates South Korea to participate in MMEs? How has the focus on ROK-US bilateral military exercises influenced South Korea’s participation in MMEs and its expansion? How does this impact the security environment in the Indo-Pacific region?
► South Korea could approach MMEs as a form of military diplomacy to shape its relations with other militaries, facilitate defense industrial cooperation, and ultimately build its positive role in the region. Avoiding unnecessary friction, the ROK can aspire to contribute more to regional order building.
► Thus, more effective planning and communication in regards to MMEs is needed for South Korea to be recognized as a major middle power with clear strategic priorities.
Recent headlines underscore how South Korea is actively participating in joint military exercises such as the Rim of the Pacific(RIMPAC), Pitch Black and Pacific Vanguard with partners in the Indo-Pacific region. While the ROK armed forces have regularly exercised with the US since the end of the Korean War, its participation in multinational military exercises(MMEs) increased in the 2000s. South Korea is also undertaking important roles in these military exercises as demonstrated by Rear Admiral Sangmin An who served as the Commander of Combined Task Force(CTF) 176 during RIMPAC this year. At this juncture one must ask, what motivates South Korea to participate in MMEs? How has the focus on ROK-US bilateral military exercises influenced South Korea’s participation in MMEs and its expansion? How does this impact the security environment in the Indo-Pacific region?
Extant literature explains that the increase in strategic uncertainty at the end of the Cold War motivated major powers to initiate two types of military exercises. First, traditional exercises aim for rehearsals or deterrence. Rehearsal exercises aim to prove military effectiveness and test how allies will work together in pending missions. Deterrence exercises aim to convince the opponent that the costs of attack will outweigh the costs. Second, non-traditional shaping exercises aim to transform the relationships between militaries or alter the characteristics of other militaries rather than threaten or defeat a designated opponent. The purpose of these exercises range from recruitment, capacity-building, role-forming to trust-development.
Middle powers such as South Korea are less resourceful. However, their case shows that the increase in strategic uncertainty has been an opportunity as well as a threat. That is, the end of the Cold war paved the way for middle powers to identify their role and grow them. For one, North Korea’s evolving conventional and nuclear threat kept South Korea’s security focus close to the shores of the Peninsula. In order to deter North Korean aggression, South Korea focused on bolstering the ROK-US alliance and prioritized ROK-US bilateral military exercises. As a consequence, stability and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula is intact to this day. Given this priority, South Korea was more likely to participate in rather than initiate minilateral or multilateral military exercises with partners beyond the US.
Meanwhile, as South Korea’s national prestige advanced due to rapid economic and democratic development, aspirations to improve its global status as well as guarantee its survival began to grow. While the ROK armed forces remains realistically focused on enhancing cooperative relationships with the US and other partners than embarking on expeditionary missions, there is a reckoning that military exercises can be better utilized to promote its role in the region. This coincides with the deepening of US-China competition that results in fewer good options for US allies in contrast to the increasing demand to play a more proactive security role in the region. Thus, South Korea is incentivized to participate in MMEs to engage in role-building as well as to strategically align itself with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.
The traditional emphasis of South Korea’s bilateral military exercises with the US has been on deterrence and rehearsing for future missions with a focus on North Korea. These exercises were prioritized due to the existential nature of the threat posed by North Korea. However, minilateral and multilateral exercises are generally less threat-oriented and are executed in low-intensity forms. Most are geared towards maintaining and building trust with diverse partners and capacity building to better respond to non-traditional security needs such as HA/DR, anti-terrorism and counter-piracy. Hence, South Korea could approach MMEs as a form of military diplomacy to shape its relations with other militaries, facilitate defense industrial cooperation, and ultimately build its positive role in the region. Avoiding unnecessary friction, the ROK can aspire to contribute more to regional order building.
There is room for improvement in South Korea’s current practice of MMEs. Strategic messaging is as important as the actual conduct of military exercises. The South Korean government’s initiatives determine how actively each service promotes each exercise through formal media channels. The ROK’s participation in RIMPAC 2022 has been highly promoted, which coincides with the Yoon administration’s forward leaning stance on Indo-Pacific security and its campaign to become a Global Pivotal State. However, this means that downturns in diplomatic relationships impact South Korea’s participation in exercises. Bilateral and trilateral SAREX exercises between the ROK-Japan and the ROK-US-Japan ended in 2017 and 2016, respectively. These exercises did not resume due to the deterioration of ROK-Japan relations in 2018~2019. Also, South Korea’s decisions are perceived to be largely influenced by US request, lacking independent thought. Given that several MMES including the ROK and Japan have continued without interruption (i.e. LINKEX, Pacific Dragon, Pacific Reach, Pacific Vanguard, and Sea Dragon), and that South Korea conducts bilateral exercises with partners including Australia (Haedori-Wallaby), New Zealand (ROK-KIWI) and Saudi Arabia (Killer-Whale) demonstrate that defense relationships are resilient and that South Korea is capable of making autonomous assessments of security and political, socioeconomic needs.
Thus, more effective planning and communication in regards to MMEs is needed for South Korea to be recognized as a major middle power with clear strategic priorities. Bilateral military exercises with the US influence South Korea’s capabilities and motivation to participate in MMEs. However this alone does not dictate the scope of South Korea’s defense relations with other partner states. The maturation of regular ROK-US military exercises have not only disciplined the ROK armed forces, provided them with ample operational and trouble-shooting experience, but also helped grow its national defense capabilities and strategic outlook. High interoperability in terms of weapons systems, standard operation procedures (SOP) and shared culture of the people has been earned by decades of hard work from both sides. South Korea can do more to help export these intangible assets to the wider Indo-Pacific region. This will not only strengthen the ROK-US alliance, but also help South Korea navigate its place and role in the wider alliance network.
Tensions are rising as China and the US ramp up military exercises to compete for influence in the Taiwan Strait after House Speaker Pelosi’s visit to the island. If US-China rivalry blows military exercises out of proportion, their net impact on regional order may turn negative. The increase in the number and linkage of MMEs can raise the probability of misperception and miscalculation. It could also impose risks on individual participants and raise concerns of entrapment. The fast-evolving security environment calls for middle powers such as South Korea to consider the larger impact of their immediate and future participation in MMEs and purposefully act in ways that contribute to greater stability in the region.
 South Korea was designated for this role as early as 2018 but the RIMPAC exercises were cancelled in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic. South Korea volunteered its service, which was accepted by the US and other partner states. Interview with Rear Admiral Sangmin An at the ROK Naval Academy, August 23, 2022.
 Wolfley, Kyle J. “Military Statecraft and the Use of Multinational Exercises in World Politics.” Foreign Policy Analysis 2021.