Award to Korean Minister Highlights Strength of U.S.-South Korean Alliance

The U.S.-South Korea alliance is strong, but defense officials will continue to work together to make it stronger yet, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at an awards ceremony here yesterday.

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford presented the Legion of Merit to South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and spoke with reporters about the crucial alliance. Before he became defense minister, Jeong was Dunford’s counterpart, and the award — the highest award the United States gives to foreign military leaders — recognized his contributions in that position.

Striking a Balance

Jeong was chairman during a crucial time, as North Korea was testing nuclear weapons and developing the rockets needed to deliver those weapons. On the military side, the two allies had to “balance activity in the North and as we began to make some adjustments in support of the diplomatic initiatives to denuclearize the peninsula,” Dunford said.

Jeong is in Washington for talks with U.S. defense leaders. The key issues are preparing for operational control transfer to South Korea. The leaders are also discussing readiness, command and control improvements and assessing the threat from North Korea.

Dunford said that both nations are comfortable with the readiness of the alliance to “fight tonight.”

Jeong thanked Dunford for the award, saying he was honored to receive it from an old friend. “Even as we speak right now, we have service members from the Korean military, as well as the United States Forces Korea, serving on the peninsula on the land, sea and air and making sure they keep the alliance strong and making sure they keep a robust defense posture on the peninsula,” Jeong said through an interpreter.


The alliance has shifted the exercise program and there has been concern over the readiness of forces on the peninsula. The first iteration of the new program has finished and Dunford said the results have been encouraging. “In all sincerity, we do not have any readiness concerns,” the chairman said. “We are still focused on proficiency in the mission essential tasks associated with combined command and control.”

He noted that combined arms training at the unit level has remained unaffected.

Dunford has a long history with Korea, first going to the nation for Exercise Team Spirit in 1980. The interoperability of forces, the advances made in working together and the agreement at policy levels “are all reflective of a very, very healthy alliance,” the chairman said.

Resilient Relationship

There will always be “perturbations” on the political side of any alliance, he said. “But the military-to-military relationship I describe as a shock absorber, and it is remarkably resilient,” Dunford said.

South Korean and American forces are working together to modernize not only equipment, but procedures, doctrine and tactics.

The two defense leaders look at the relationship long term. “It’s important to look at our presence in Korea not just as a response to the DPRK, but our presence there is also supportive of the broader free and open Indo-Pacific,” Dunford said. “Our alliance shares many more objectives than just defending South Korea from North Korean aggression.”

South Korea and the United States are nations with the same values and interests, and the alliance today — while concentrating rightly on the North Korean threat — is a foundation for that long-term relationship, the chairman said.