The President says Seoul is now ready but the opposition wants more timeIn recent days, the issue of transferring wartime control of South Korean troops to the South Korean government has been at the top of the media’s agenda. The security situation on the Korean peninsula is unique as it is divided into two countries ― South Korea and North Korea ― that are still technically at war; fighting in the Korean War ended in 1953 but with an armistice instead of a peace treaty. Simply put, the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean troops would mean that, in case of a war here, the troops would be commanded by senior South Korean officers who receive their orders from the South Korean president.
Currently, the commander of the R.O.K.-U.S. Combined Forces Command, a U.S. four-star general who is also in charge of all U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula, has operational wartime control of all South Korean and U.S. forces. While this commander carries out orders that have been reached by consensus between the South Korean president and the president of the United States, the common perception here is that the U.S. commander has overall authority over South Korean troops.
President Syngman Rhee transferred operational control of Korean forces in July 1950 after the outbreak of the Korean War. It was passed to the commander of United Nations forces, who at the time was General Douglas McArthur. In 1978, when the Combined Forces Command was established, operational control was transferred once again to the commander of U.S. troops stationed here. In 1994, under President Kim Young-sam, the United States withdrew from peacetime operational control of South Korean troops. Seoul regained command of its own troops during peacetime; wartime command remained in U.S. hands.
While the South Korean government and the United States have been considering transferring wartime operational command to Seoul, it was not until September 2001 that the South Korean government officially raised the issue with Washington. In October of the following year, both sides agreed to speed up discussions on the transfer.
President Roh Moo-hyun has been very outspoken on the issue, seeing it as an essential step for a more self-reliant defense. In a speech given in August 2003, commemorating the country’s Independence Day, the president pointed out that South Korea does not have the authority to undertake independent operations and he pledged to provide a basis for the military within the next decade which would allow it to prepare for a transfer of wartime operational control to Seoul. Mr. Roh has linked the issue to the sovereignty of the country, arguing that South Korean forces have grown stronger since the Korean War and are thus capable of exercising sole wartime command of its own troops, Consequently, he argued, it is only natural that the South Korean president should have command authority of South Korean troops under all circumstances.
If the transfer takes place, the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command will be dissolved and the two sides will each have an independent command plus a joint command that will coordinate military operations between the two countries.
The transfer debate comes at a time when Seoul has initiated a mid-term plan to improve its military capabilities. The plan aims to transform the South Korean military by 2011 into a smaller force that is technologically more advanced. It calls especially for the improvement of the country’s intelligence gathering capabilities by acquiring advanced airborne radar systems and deploying military satellites, while improving the military’s ability in precision strikes. The Defense Ministry is also looking to obtain F-15K fighter jets and Aegis class destroyers. The ministry estimates that it will spend 151 trillion won ($150.9 billion) until 2011 but that additional money would not be necessary if the command transfer occurred; something those opposing the transfer say is not true.
However, all sides agree that intelligence technologies and fast strike capabilities are the areas that must be improved for Seoul to assume full control of the country’s military. General Burwell B. Bell, the top U.S. commander here, said that Washington would provide help in these areas until Seoul has elevated its defense capabilities to the required level.
Washington and Seoul have agreed on the transfer but a detailed timetable has not been drawn up. Both sides are scheduled to work out such a timeframe at an upcoming security meeting later this month in Washington. Seoul wants the transfer to take place in 2012 while Washington is arguing for a transfer in 2009. U.S. senior commanders here have argued that Seoul has the capability to exercise wartime operational control and that it would provide the necessary help during the transitional phase.
Those opposing the transfer, such as the Grand National Party, claim that the transfer will dissolve the Combined Forces Command and thus eventually result in a further reduction of U.S. forces stationed here.
The government has countered such arguments saying that the joint command that will replace the outgoing Combined Forces Command will be equally efficient and there won’t be any additional reduction in U.S. forcs here. Several U.S. officials have publicly said that except for a small reduction due to new command structures no significant force reduction will take place and that Washington is committed to the defense of the Korean peninsula and will station its troops here as long as they are wanted by the host country. Under a previous agreement, U.S. forces will be reduced to 25,000 by 2008.
Senior U.S. officials such as the U.S. Ambassador to Seoul, Alexander Vershbow, have expressed concern over the heated political debate, saying that the issue is strictly a military one and should not be politicized. The conservative camp here has demanded that the issue should be decided by the National Assembly but the government has said that there are no constitutional grounds for that.
Another argument presented by opposing parties is that the new command structure would make the deployment of additional U.S. forces uncertain. Nevertheless, the government has dismissed such arguments saying that the current defense treaty between South Korea and the U.S. is what ensures additional military aid from Washington, not the existence of a Combined Forces Command.
by Brian Lee
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