Surprisingly, perhaps, most Korean officers seem quite comfortable with the current arrangement.
by Tom Coyner
July 30, 2013
This latest request from South Korea to the United States to postpone once again the transfer of wartime operational control of combined forces to South Korea reminds me of some of the peculiar characteristics of Korean politics. For example, one may wonder if some South Korean politicians find it advantageous to allow the public to remain ignorant of the evolving complexities of the U.S.-ROK relationship. It seems advantageous for politicians to tacitly give the impression to their constituents that they have less power than they actually do. After all, being “under the thumb of Big Brother” gives politicians a plausible rationale to suggest they have no other choice but to do what might be unpopular.
Of course, this potential misleading of the public brings with it the possibility that Koreans at times will jump to the wrong conclusion, sometimes leading to populist movements – such as last decade’s farcical anti-mad cow demonstrations.
But the nonsense of all of this is revealed when America acts outside the stereotype portrayed by Korea’s make-believe leftists. When in 2006 former President Roh Moo-Hyun demanded that wartime OpCon be handed over by 2012, then U.S. Secretary of Donald Rumsfeld responded affirmatively – in fact, Rumsfeld offered the handover as early as 2009. Furthermore, Rumsfeld proposed to Roh that South Koreans should increase their share of costs for U.S. Forces Korea from 40 percent to a “more equitable 50 percent.”
While it would be disingenuous to suggest the United States is in Korea for purely altruistic reasons, there are calls in America for U.S. Forces in Korea to be scaled back given the costs to the American taxpayer and the robust growth of South Korea.
Anyway, President Roh’s demand and Rumfeld’s counteroffer led to street demonstrations by several retired Korean generals and officers, as well as conservative groups, calling on Roh to behave responsibly.
All of which, from a foreigner’s perspective, was quite peculiar. After all, what Korean conservatives and progressives have in common is a strong sense of nationalism. One would naturally think Koreans of all political persuasions would be eager to have this command transfer to take place, the sooner the better.
To see why this is not necessarily so, we need to understand that since 1978, the Combined Forces Command has been accountable to a joint military committee that gets its authority from both U.S. and South Korean national command authorities.
The Korean units assigned to the CFC are designated by the Korean side and can be withdrawn at any time upon notification. The American CFC commander cannot refuse such notification. All he can do is point out the impact it may have on the performance of his overall mission.
In light of Chun Doo Hwan’s coup d’etat and suppression of the Gwangju uprising, these points have not been well understood by most Koreans or most Americans. Neither has it been well explained. When U.S. officials tried to state their position publicly in 1980, they were stymied by South Korean martial law and censorship. Subsequently, there was little effort to set the record straight because of the priority and sensitivity accorded to political stability.
In other words, despite a military technological gap, the relationship between the two sides has been much more equal than is publicly imagined.
As of today, the U.S. maintains at CFC a four-star general and two-star general – C3 (operations and training, the primary war-fighting team) and C5 (plans, policy and strategy) – to head up the most important staff sections, with a Korean four-star deputy and one-star Korean deputy, respectively, to offset them on behalf of the Korean side.
Surprisingly, perhaps, most Korean officers seem quite comfortable with the current arrangement in regard to how U.S. forces are stationed in Korea. Korean officers realize that given their hierarchical system and relatively rigid training, they are not prepared to react within the CFC with the required swiftness and flexibly in the face of major hostilities.
Even with recent changes in orders of the day that permit South Korean forces to fire back at North Korean troops or targets without prior authorization when attacked, ROK officers remain hesitant to order a major response out of fear of overreacting and, thereby, truncating what otherwise could have been successful military careers.
We should note, however, the U.S. Army continuously maintains the lead over its Korean counterparts in cutting-edge military technology, sophisticated command and control procedures, and air power. And, thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officers arrive here “battle hardened.”
All of which makes the perception of the South Korean Army operating under the U.S. Army very much a necessity, despite legal technicalities and nationalist passions. According to a credible rumor, when the wartime OpCon handover was agreed to during the Roh administration, Korean leaders learned of the high costs of the technologies they would have to master, which has since diminished their eagerness to be in charge.
Recently the New York Times reported that Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified in the Senate that the South Korean military “is a very capable force, but it has had some setbacks in funding to achieve” some of the steps the two allies have settled on for transfer of control, including the purchase of weapons, stockpiling of munitions and mastering of certain surveillance platforms.
So, while there has been considerable discussions in the press about the political issues of the wartime command handover, there also remain huge changes needed in information and other systems to accommodate such a structural change. Even after both sides agree to a handover, it cannot be done immediately. There first has to be major changes and testing of those changes before the handover can prudently be accomplished.
Eventually, a wartime command handover is expected to take place, but with each postponement, the question remains open as to actually – and practically – when? The fact remains that what superficially seems like a straightforward transfer is, in reality, extremely complex for many, many reasons.
*The author is president of Soft Landing Consulting, a sales-focused business development firm, and senior adviser to IPG Legal group.