Last July, the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington DC, organized a conference in Poway, California, on “countering the ballistic missile threat” from North Korea.
Its purpose was to focus public attention on a potential new US military strategy against North Korea. Proposed by a former Pentagon official, it would involve stationing four to five attack drones armed with guided missiles off the Korean coast to detect a North Korean missile launch in its boost phase and destroy it before it blasts off.
“Putting those missiles on a rotating drone patrol off the North Korean coast would provide a vital frontline layer of security against missile attack” that could be the “best short-to-midterm solution to stopping North Korean missile launches,” Arthur Hermann, a Hudson Institute fellow who organized the conference, wrote in the San Diego Union Tribune.
The Hudson conference, however, was hardly an objective affair. No alternative voices were heard about the strategy of shooting down North Korean missiles, which many US analysts consider a dangerous idea that would provoke a wider war in Korea and the Northeast Asia region. There was a reason for the lack of debate: this was a weapons demonstration sponsored by a think tank and one of its largest donors.
Poway is the headquarters for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., which manufactures the drones that would be deployed as front-line sentries against North Korea’s missile fleet. As Hermann disclosed in his article, the gathering was made possible because Global Atomics’ CEO, Linden Blue, is on the Hudson Institute’s board of trustees.
“Developing and delivering capabilities to protect and defend the U.S., Japan and South Korea is a critical part of the General Atomics’ mission,” Blue said at the conference, where he was joined by Dr. Kenneth Weinstein, the institute’s president and CEO. Another guest was Leonard Caveny, a former official with the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, who was credited with coming up with the idea for the North Korea drone fleet (the MDA recently issued a request to industry for information on a “high-altitude long endurance aircraft” that could be used in Korea).
Despite the Hudson Institute’s commitment to “protect” South Korea, however, the government of Moon Jae-in was not represented at the conference. The only foreign guests were from a Japanese delegation led by Itsunori Onodera, a ruling party politician who weeks later was appointed Minister of Defense in the Shinzo Abe government in Tokyo. As Hudson’s Hermann explained in a press release about the conference, “Japan will be one of America’s most important partners in developing a missile defense system that prevents a North Korean launch from ever reaching our shores.”
Still, the think tank’s lobbying may have paid off. As Newstapa reported last week, General Atomics “Predator Avenger” drones – which are armed with sophisticated sensors and missiles - are now on the list of new military weapons South Korea may buy from the United States. And on October 18, General Atomics announced that that it had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and South Korea’s Civil RPAS Research Center to “help advance the ability of [drones] to fly in Korean civil airspace.”
The Poway event suggests two realities about South Korea’s growing defense market, of which US defense contractors hold a 75 percent market share.
First, many Korean arms purchases from the United States emerge from intense lobbying by powerful Washington-based think tanks linked to weapons makers. The Hudson Institute is just one part of a larger industry dominated by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Center for A New American Security and the Institute for the Study of War. As described below, the ties between arms sellers and these think tanks are long and deep, and their policies closely match their donors’ economic and political interests in Korea and Asia in general.
Second, the future of South Korean arms purchases is now largely dependent on strategies adopted by the Moon, Abe and Trump administrations as part of the emerging three-way military alliance between South Korea, the US and Japan. With Japan playing a critical role in the Trump administration’s strategies with North Korea, this means acquisitions will dovetail with these regional imperatives unless Seoul takes a more independent course.
In this sense, a Korean or US acquisition of General Atomics drones specifically designed to shoot North Korean missiles down in their launch phase would easily fit into the more aggressive posture Abe has urged South Korea and the US to take as the North Korea crisis deepens.
Abe’s influence is likely to expand his ruling Liberal Democratic Party won an overwhelming victory Monday in a snap election called by Abe in which the issue of North Korea figured prominently. The Japan Times reported that Abe’s party “had secured 281 seats by itself, well beyond the ‘overwhelming majority’ of 261 seats” needed to dominate parliamentary deliberations. In the wake of Abe’s victory, CSIS – which, as described below, receives large funds from the Japanese government – expressed its support in an analysis published Monday.
The election “solidifies” Abe’s “political footing,” CSIS said, noting that “the LDP’s election platform focused first and foremost on the importance of strong leadership in the face of an increasing threat from North Korea.” As a result, Abe “will therefore further his commitment to increase defense spending, strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance including bilateral cooperation on missile defense, and use a variety of tools including sanctions to pressure the regime in Pyongyang.”
The need for the US, Korean and Japanese militaries to work more closely together was recently emphasized by the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank financed heavily by US and Japanese military contractors. At a press conference last July, it issued a report on “U.S. Defense Innovation and Northeast Asia,” that argued that such integration is necessary for the United States to “maintain its relative advantage” against North Korea and other adversaries.
“The US must take advantage of the current period, in which both Japan and South Korea have demonstrated significant interest in closer defense ties with the United States,” its US and Japanese authors argued. But they also noted that, while three-way dialogue and military exercises occur regularly, “the US has not been able to cultivate the deeper trust between South Korea and Japan necessary to hold more strategic conversations at a high level.”
In the next section, Newstapa will explore and analyze these trends as observed in the the Washington world of lobbying, looking primarily at CSIS and the extremely close ties it developed with the Park and Moon administrations.
CSIS has played an important role in shaping US policy in South Korea for decades. But as the South Korean and US militaries have become more integrated in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, CSIS has become an important forum where military collaboration – especially on the industrial side – is thrashed out and decided. Its role as a mediator was on vivid display in November 2016, when the center sponsored a conference on “U.S.-Korea Defense Acquisition Policy and the International Security Environment.”
The meeting drew high-level participation from the Park government, including Chang Myoung Jin, Park’s Minister for the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (who was removed from office in July for mismanaging a key export program) and Yi Yong Sic, the then-managing director of Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI). The meeting discussed difficult issues such as industry corruption and differences over US technology transfers. It marked an important step forward in the US-ROK military alliance, CSIS’s CEO John Hamre, a former Deputy Secretary of Defense, said in his opening remarks.
“For most of my professional life, Korea was a place what had to buy from others in order to protect itself,” he said. “We’re now seeing a big transition where Korea is now producing for itself and potentially producing things to sell to us. This is unprecedented…We’ve been military partners for 70 years but we are now going to be business partners in a very new way.”
Specifically, Hamre mentioned the export partnership between Lockheed Martin and KAI on the T-50 Golden Eagle trainer fighter. A year later, despite the shift in South Korea to a progressive government, these relationships have only deepened. The Lockheed-KAI T-50, for example, is now in contention with Boeing and Leonardo DRS for the US Air Force’s next trainer (the award will be made in 2018).
Hamre and CSIS have also been at the forefront of the US-Korean discussions over military strategy. In October 2016, Hamre disclosed in a speech to a Washington conference that the South Korean government had been pleading for “a more visible presence on the ground” of US strategic assets such as its nuclear capability.” But the US refused at the time, he said, based on a calculation that such a display of military might could offend the Korean left and lead to a progressive winning the next elections. “The more visible we are in demonstrating a nuclear guarantee on the ground in Korea, the more we ignite the progressive left in the next election to vote against us,” he said. “That’s the dilemma…We can’t let this become a flash point in the election so America becomes the boogeyman (the issue).”
Less than a year later, of course, US deployment of those “strategic assets” has been happening on a regular basis since North Korea began its barrage of missile tests this year. As everyone in Seoul is aware, US B1-B Lancer bombers and fighter jets routinely fly into Korean airspace from their bases in Guam and Japan.
Last week, an enormous array of US strategic weapons were on display at the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition. And the US-ROK maritime drills that began on October 16 involved some of the most advanced ships in the US fleet, including the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine (which was carrying a “unit of U.S. special forces tasked with carrying out ‘decapitation’ operations,” according to Yonhap.) Moon’s election, combined with North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, made this change possible.
Meanwhile, since Moon became president, CSIS has become an important bridge between his administration and Trump’s. In June, after his summit meeting at the White House, President Moon gave a major foreign policy address at CSIS, and afterwards met for over two hours with CSIS’s powerful board of trustees, which includes over a dozen former high-ranking US defense officials. And last week, as predicted, Victor Cha, the director of CSIS’s Korea program and a former official with the Bush administration, will be named the next US ambassador to South Korea, according to the Washington Post. That means that Cha and other top Asia officials for the State Department will be in place when Trump visits Korea in early November, the Post added.
All of these policies and actions are reflective of the funding CSIS receives from the defense industry and governments. According to the CSIS website, its top government donors – providing $500,000 a year or more – are the US, Japan, Taiwan and the UAE. The largest corporate donors are Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which all have major operations in South Korea. Lesser donors include the JoongAng Media Network, Samsung Electronics and Korea Aerospace. The US companies also have a strong ideological commitment to US policy, including the importance of the three-way alliance with Japan.
“Our trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea is stronger than ever,” Mark Lippert, the former US ambassador to Seoul and now a vice president of Boeing, said at a CSIS conference last December. Lockheed Martin, now in a joint venture with Korea Aerospace, often describes its legacy as going back to the Korean War.
In a speech to the Korea Society in 2014, for example, Lockheed CEO Marillyn A. Hewson noted with pride that, in the first months of the Korean War, “air attacks by Lockheed F-80 Shooting Stars accounted for roughly 75 percent of enemy losses.” (If we accept the Wikipedia estimate of one million North Korean deaths in the war and divide that by three years, that could mean that Lockheed aircraft were responsible for 250,000 deaths). “Our nation was committed to Korea’s security then, and we remain firmly committed to it now, as new and complex threats challenge stability in the region and beyond,” Hewson added.
The Stimson Center that is leading the fight for an expanded three-way military alliance with Japan is even more reliant on Japanese donations than CSIS. In addition to the US military heavyweights Lockheed, Northrop and Boeing, Stimson’s 2016 donors included the Japanese government, the Japanese Embassy in Washington, and the Ministry of Defense, plus a stunning array of Japanese arms companies. They included Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi International Corporation, Hitachi Ltd., and IHI Aerospace.
In contrast to Japan’s heavy investment, Stimson only has one Korean contributor: the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. It is controlled by Chung Mong-Joon of the Hyundai family of companies who owns the largest single chunk of Hyundai Heavy Industries. He is also the former chair of Park Geun Hye’s Saenuri Party (formerly the GNP) and in 2013 called for South Korea to obtain nuclear weapons – a position that dovetails with many in Japan’s and South Korea’s far right.
Yuki Tatsumi, the director of Stimson’s Japan program, is a virtual extension of the Japanese government. She is a former special assistant for political affairs at Japan’s embassy in Washington and takes a critical perspective towards South Korea’s desire for a more independent strategic policy.
That was evident when Newstapa asked her, during her July presentation, how Korean opposition to the THAAD anti-missile system might affect the three-way alliance. Her answer exposed a certain ambivalence towards Moon that often comes to the surface in both Tokyo and Washington. Tatsumi said she was “still hopeful” the Moon administration would expand US deployment of THAAD. “After months of revisiting the issue, a responsible leader would realize that THAAD is the smart way,” she added in a lecturing tone.
Since that meeting in July, the Moon government has approved the US deployment of more THAAD missile defense batteries to South Korea and may even buy more directly from Lockheed Martin. Such decisions will expand the Korean market for weapons, which is already one of the world’s largest.
South Korea’s 2016 imports of $1.6 billion made it the world’s 6th largest purchaser of arms, behind Saudi Arabia, Algeria, India, Iraq and Egypt, according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database. And from 2008 to 2016, Korean contracts under the US Foreign Military Sales program reached $15.7 billion and commercial acquisitions $6.9 billion, for a total of $22.5 billion in acquisitions over that time. Growth like that will keep the think tanks busy for many years.