[OVERSEAS VIEW]The time is right to take over the defenseAmerica’s two alliances in Northeast Asia with Japan and South Korea, are undergoing major changes as outmoded Cold War command structures are revised in favor of new arrangements. How these new arrangements are structured will have important implications for the countries’ respective dealings with the United States.
In line with calls for a more “equal” relationship with the United States, President Roh Moo-hyun has called for the recovery of wartime operational control that President Syngman Rhee gave to U.S.-led United Nations forces in desperation at the start of the Korean War.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld welcomed the South Korean initiative to recover operational control at last fall’s annual Security Consultative Meetings, or SCM. The task of transferring operational control is being negotiated at security talks, with the goal of submitting recommendations to the next SCM in October.
Although combined deterrence was a key to creating a stable security environment for South Korea’s economic growth in an era of high tensions with North Korea, the North’s conventional threat has weakened despite the current nuclear crisis. Given South Korea’s dramatic economic gains, it is understandable why South Koreans might see the Combined Forces Command relationship that fuses American and South Korean force structures together under an American commander in wartime as anachronistic.
The U.S. presence is politically contested within South Korea and is viewed by progressive critics as an obstacle, rather than a facilitator, to peace on the Korean Peninsula. The American public, in need of a foreign policy “victory” given the protracted engagement in Iraq, would easily accept further reductions or a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces in Korea, based on Korea’s perceived ability to both defend itself and pay for its own defense.
Thus, the time is ripe for revamping the combined command relationship, but the alternative arrangements are hard to define. There is still no formal peace on the peninsula and confidence building measures enshrined in the 1992 inter-Korean Basic Agreement have not yet been implemented.
In my view, there are two key issues to be addressed as part of the discussion of how to revise the current command structure. The first is how to shape new arrangements, keeping in mind that a formal peace regime on the Korean Peninsula has not yet been realized.
For those who believe that the process of inter-Korean reconciliation is irreversibly moving toward “peaceful coexistence,” it is time to disband the CFC and establish separate, parallel American and Korean command structures on the Korean peninsula, analogous to the command relations that currently exist in Japan between the U.S. Forces Japan and the Japanese Self Defense Forces. Such arrangements are sufficient to support war-fighting capabilities but not to actually fight a war.
On the other hand, others argue that North Korea remains armed and dangerous. Thus, the abandonment of a combined command structure is premature at present, but adjustments ― for instance, borrowing NATO arrangements that allow for greater independent command authority within a broader multilateral operational structure ― would satisfy South Korean political needs to recover full authority over military decision-making.
The second issue is how long it will take for the South Korean military to achieve the capabilities necessary to achieve independent command and control functions that are essential to self-reliant defense. This is a matter of developing the necessary budget and organizational structures to strengthen the capacity of the Ministry of National Defense to support this national objective. It would serve no one’s interest ― and would in fact be a disservice to South Korea’s national interest ― to prematurely regain wartime operational control without giving the military the technological capacities necessary to effectively execute such authority.
Meanwhile, Japan is slowly abandoning the command structure that some in South Korea deem most desirable as a model. As Japan moves toward becoming a “normal” nation, it has been more proactive in supporting U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Japanese peace constitution and related Japanese laws will require further revision if greater cooperation with the U.S. military is to be realized. Ultimately, U.S.-Japan cooperation on missile defense may yield a combined decision-making structure, while USFK and its Korean counterparts move toward autonomy and independence from the burdens of joint coordination that are essential to efficiency in actual military operations.
It is important as a political matter that South Korea exercise full authority over its military forces, but this objective should be pursued in accordance with a careful consideration of emerging threats, changes in the U.S.-Japan alliance, development of South Korean operational capabilities, and lowered expectations for the U.S. role in South Korea’s defense, in light of resulting changes to the capacities of the alliance.
* The writer, a senior associate with the Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS, is currently a Pantech Fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC). The views expressed here are personal ones.
by Scott Snyder