Korea’s unique position for military reform

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Korea’s unique position for military reform

The United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor hosts the biannual RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) Exercises in June and July, an immensely successful program that encourages global military cooperation and helps to reduce regional tensions in East Asia

The RIMPAC Exercises invite representatives of military forces from the entire Pacific Rim to participate in military exercises that promote enhanced interoperability between forces and improve readiness for a wide range of military scenarios. The most important result of the RIMPAC Exercises has been the growth of personal relations and practical military-to-military partnerships throughout the region at the working level.

Significantly, the People’s Liberation Army Navy was invited to participate in the 2014 exercises, marking the first time China has joined a large-scale naval drill organized by the United States.

In spite of headlines in newspapers about a “new cold war,” multilateral military cooperation remains a strong trend globally, in part because emerging security threats, like cyber warfare, by their very nature are complex and demand multilateral responses.

This new environment offers a tremendous opportunity for Korea as a middle power to become a leader in military innovation and reform. Korea is no simple middle power, after all. Korea is perhaps the first country without a tradition of imperialism to reach such a level of influence in technology, trade and culture. And Korea does so while maintaining good relations with all the major powers and with many developing nations.

Korea should organize a new variation on RIMPAC that will bring together working-level officers from Pacific Rim nations for exercises that will build a new level of trust in the region and make military exercises an opportunity for unity, rather than creating new tensions.

Such a new RIMPAC exercise should focus on emerging security issues and could extend participation to include the nations of Southeast and Central Asia.

The overwhelming security threat for Asia today is climate change and the new role of the military in mitigation of climate change. Adaptation to the resulting broad security threats would be an ideal theme for a Korean-led RIMPAC exercise.

In light of the recent report on the rapid rise of sea levels by the renowned NASA scientist James Hansen, formulating a global response to the threat of climate change has become a priority for all militaries, particularly the navy.

The Climate Change RIMPAC exercises would focus on drills for the response to security challenges related to climate change including, but not limited to, evacuation, disaster relief and reconstruction following storms and floods. Recent super-typhoons like Nargis (2008) and Haiyan (2013) demonstrate that climate change is overwhelmingly the greatest threat to security in Asia, and such storms will increasingly inch north as climate change progresses.

In addition to military exercises, the Climate Change RIMPAC should include global competitions by militaries of Asia for new environmentally friendly technologies.

The example of the U.S. Department of Defense’s “Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security,” or SPIDERS, program is a good example of what could be done. The SPIDERS program conducted in 2013 the world’s first-ever test of a micro-grid handling an input of 90 percent renewable energy.

The military representatives at the Climate Change RIMPAC could compete for prizes for new technologies in fields like solar and wind power, electric batteries, power grids, environmental conservation and the use of intelligence and surveillance technologies to monitor and respond to the changing state of the oceans using a multilateral platform.

Such competitions will have even more impact if they are held together with an international conference, where the invited militaries can present papers about their advances in fields related to climate change. Topics like recycling, energy efficiency, water security, electric motors and the prevention of desertification could be subjects for presentations.

Such a Climate Change RIMPAC could be an excellent topic to bring at the Barack Obama-Xi Jinping summit in November this year. When President Obama visited Beijing last year, the two leaders firmly stated their commitment to closer military cooperation and a joint response to climate change. The Climate Change RIMPAC would be a concrete step to bring together both issues.

The proposal for a Climate Change RIMPAC could segue to the Paris Climate Change Conference planned for December, where world leaders will be pressed to come up with concrete responses to the growing fears of climate change’s impact on the entire world.

Finally, a Climate Change RIMPAC could also be an opportunity to establish an international think tank in Korea dedicated to this emerging topic: the military’s role in the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change.

Although this topic is guaranteed to attract increasing attention in the years ahead, there is no such think tank in existence. Because of the global consensus on climate change, a think tank focused on military reform as part of a response to climate change would offer a neutral space in which military leaders could meet for discussions on a variety of topics without any fear of political fallout.

Considering the Green Climate Fund and Global Green Growth Institute are here in Korea, the country has unique credentials to host a Climate Change RIMPAC and set up a think tank focused on military reform and the response to climate change.

Korea needs to take advantage of its technical expertise, its military know-how and the geopolitical positioning necessary to respond to a rapidly growing threat.

*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.

by Emanuel Pastreich

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