This fall, South Korean and American allies are expected to negotiate a new OPCON transfer plan that could potentially return wartime control of the South Korean military to Seoul. In 1950, American troops took operational control of South Korea’s military during the Korean War. Forty years later, in 1994, the Republic of Korea (ROK) reassumed peacetime control of its forces; however, in the event of war, the U.S. maintains the obligation to command a combined force of American and South Korean troops. American presence in Yongsan, the heart of Seoul, has been a source of consistent discord among rival political parties (1). Conservative South Koreans largely remain committed to a firm alliance with continued U.S. support and presence on the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, detractors of this alliance regard this military arrangement as an affront to national pride that not only violates South Korean sovereignty but also further provokes the most salient threat to national security: North Korea.
Although elected on the promise that South Korea would retake wartime control of the Peninsula by 2015, current ROK President Park Geun-hye sat down with the Pentagon last November, ultimately deciding, like her predecessors, to delay an OPCON transfer. The DPRK’s recent nuclear test, ballistic missile ejection tests, and other asymmetric capabilities, like cyber-warfare, are frequently cited concerns responsible for continued delays (2). South Korean officials expect a transfer by the mid-2020s, during which time the ROK can modernize its defensive and offensive capabilities. However, in the interim, persistent threats from Pyongyang have only strengthened the ROK’s reliance on the U.S. Nearly 30,000 American troops are situated in the South, conducting annual joint-war games with a South Korean military of 650,000 troops (3). Supporters of a U.S.-ROK alliance argue that sudden changes to the security structure may push South Korea toward internal balancing and nuclear deterrence, rather than a regional alliances, such as with Japan. Moreover, they contend that, in an geopolitical environment where tensions are escalating, the resources, training and preparation of American troops are more vital than ever (4). Those who support abandoning this alliance first established by the Mutual Defense Treaty, like Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, point to the United States’ role in exacerbating regional tensions. The argument follows that an American presence in the ROK not only encourages South Korea to become more confrontational with its northern neighbor, but also prompts the DPRK to bolster its own forces, which, in turn, creates greater regional insecurity (5).
Detractors and supporters of this alliance generally agree that a movement toward greater autonomy for the ROK military is positive. Disagreement arises over the urgency of this prospect and what shape an amended military relationship between the U.S. and South Korea might take. The onus falls on both South Korean and American leaders to remain committed to their stated intentions without further delay. As a transfer begins to take form in the next decade, the focus cannot remain solely upon the ROK’s plans for modernization. The United States, South Korea and, most importantly, the international community must, where diplomacy fails, induce China to use its economic leverage to counter North Korea.
(1) Sang-Hun, Choe. “U.S. and South Korea Agree to Delay Shift in Wartime Command.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 5 July 2016.
(2) Pinkston, Daniel A. and Clint Work. “New Realities, Old Fears: Escalation on the Korean Peninsula.” The Diplomat. Trans-Asia Inc., 28 Jan. 2016. Web. 5 July 2016.
(3) Sang-Hun, Choe. “U.S. and South Korea Agree to Delay Shift in Wartime Command.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 5 July 2016.
(4) Pinkston, Daniel A. and Clint Work. “New Realities, Old Fears: Escalation on the Korean Peninsula.” The Diplomat. Trans-Asia Inc., 28 Jan. 2016. Web. 5 July 2016.
(5) Bandow, Doug. “Time for U.S. To Retire Outdated Alliance with ROK.” The World Post. The Huffington Post, 14 Nov. 2015. Web. 5 July 2016.
Image: © Pavel Kusmartsev | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photo-usa-south-korea-image28584805#res14972580">USA and South Korea</a>