by Jeong Lee and Major Chad M. Pillai. Jeong Lee is a freelance writer whose writings on U.S. defense and foreign policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications. Lee looks forward to start his Master of Arts program in International Security Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies this September. Major Chad M. Pillai is an Army Strategist in the U.S. Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC). He recently served as a Special Assistant to the Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the 38th Army Chief of Staff. Major Chad Pillai received his Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 2009. He recently published the “Return of Great Power Politics” at War on the Rocks.
During the summit held in Seoul on April 25th, U.S. President Barack Obama, together with the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) President Park Geun-hye, warned that the United States would respond firmly against any future provocations by North Korea’s Kim Jŏng-ŭn. To that end, given “the evolving security environment in the region, including the enduring North Korean nuclear and missile threat”, President Obama told Park that he is willing to “reconsider” the current deadline for the wartime Operational Control (OPCON) handover to the ROK military.
While the mainstream South Korean as well as the ROK military continue to insist that delaying the OPCON handover is necessary mostly due to the inherent lack of C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) capabilities required to counter the North Korean threats, many of their American counterparts believe that there may be a confluence of political factors within the ROK at play that may have influenced their desire for the continued American control of their military during wartime.
Since the end of the Korean War to 2004, during the war in Iraq, the U.S. maintained two maneuver brigades and over 30,000 troops whose mission it was to defend Seoul and prepare for the American-led counter-attack. The demands of the Iraq War altered the U.S. posture in South Korea with the deployment of the 2nd Brigade from Korea to Iraq. In light of the U.S. wartime needs, the U.S. began a major effort to re-posture forces south of Seoul with the Rumsfeld-led Global Posture Review which included considering tour-normalization for Soldiers along the lines of forces in Europe, and a re-evaluate its mission from an integrated defense of a Seoul with the ROK to a support mission for Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) and WMD consequence management in the event of a North Korean collapse. With the shift in its mission, the U.S. and the ROK began the discussion of transitioning operational control (OPCON) of ROK forces from the U.S. to the ROK and the disintegration of the Combined Forces Command (CFC). The deadline for OPCON has been delayed several times; however, it does not alter the trajectory of the US focusing more on WMD consequence management while the capabilities of the ROK army continue to improve and take greater responsibility for their country’s defense.
Aside the continued threat emanating from North Korea, the ROK represents a key element in the U.S. rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region. The growing capability of the ROK allows the U.S. to use its forces assigned to the peninsula differently to support theater security initiatives in the region. Looking geo-strategically, the ROK represents the northern anchor of the Asia-Pacific rebalance extending to the southern anchor of Australia.Indeed, despite claims by some that dissolving the CFC would eliminate unity of command requisite in maintaining a robust military alliance, one American officer currently serving in the ROK recently told us via e-mail that, “OPCON transfer would take away the CFC commander hat from the USFK (US Forces Korea) commander, but the other, US Force Korea and UN Forces Korea, would still be American”. Furthermore, he claimed that latest OSINT (Open- Source Intelligence) analyses on the ROK military and the joint US-ROK OPLANs may point to the fact that the ROK Armed Forces are “really the drivers of their national defense today”. After all, to the extent that the American presence matters, it is less about stopping the North Korean invasion and more about containing the threats stemming from the North Korean WMD proliferation.
If anything, the officer averred that the ROK military seemed to desire the OPCON delay to “hedge against” its powerful neighbors, namely, Japan and China. According to this officer, “the role of OPCON is to keep the Americans in, the North Koreans out, the Japanese down, and the Chinese cautious”. One piece of evidence which bears this out, the officer writes, is that the ROK military “had their own SECRET/NOFORN meetings and information that they wouldn’t share with the Americans because they have plans of their own”.
But one ROK Air Force officer whom we recently e-mailed apparently disagrees. According to this ROK officer, the ROK Armed Forces, in particular, the ROK Air Force currently “fields capabilities that are only 50% commensurate with their American counterparts”. Further he claims that the Air Force is not “even thinking about taking over the operational control of its own service branch”. Despite the ROK Air Force officer’s perceived views on the limitations in the ROK Air Force and Navy, the ROK Air Force and Navy are superior to their North Korean counterparts and augmented US air and naval assets further increases the capabilities gaps between the two Koreas. Additionally, the Korean theater is a land centric theater where the ROK Army is very capable of proving the bulk of the nation’s defense.
Whatever the arguments may be regarding the raisons d’être for the continued U.S. military presence in the Korean peninsula, two things remain certain. First, what may partially explain the ROK’s desire to delay the OPCON is the fact that it is looking beyond the immediate North Korean threats to guard its geostrategic interests in light of its rivalry with China and Japan. Indeed, defense budget increases—or for that matter, acquisition of improved capabilities by the three East Asian countries are reactions to perceived threats posed by their rivals’ attempts to rearm themselves. Secondly, the mutual agreement between the United States and the ROK to reconsider the timeline for OPCON transfer may be indicative of the fact that the ROK government appears reluctant to seek diplomatic solutions to defuse the ongoing North Korean threats. As if to bear this out, the recent bellicose statement by the ROK Defense Ministry spokesman calling for the North “to disappear soon” bespeaks of pervasive distrust and hatred for the DPRK among the South Korean officials.
For the U.S., the delay in OPCON transfer will not limit its desires to see the ROK assume greater responsibility for its defense as it seeks to balance its commitments and resources across the entirety of the Asia-Pacific Region. For the ROK, the delay provides time for acquisition of improved technology, doctrine, and increased interoperability with U.S. forces along with maintaining a geostrategic hedge against their neighbors. In the end, OPCON transfer is a matter of when and how it will fit into the overall strategic picture for the U.S. and the ROK to hedge against instability in the region.