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The United States and South Korea: Challenges and Remedies for Wartime Operational Control

by Guest Blogger for Scott A. Snyder
March 1, 2010

South Korean Defense Minister Kim and U.S. Defense Secretary Gates shake hands during the 39th annual South Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting at the Defense Ministry in Seoul (Jo Yong Hak/ Courtesy Reuters).

Bruce E. Bechtol Jr. is Professor of International Relations at Marine Corps Command and Staff College. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, the Marine Corps University, or the United States Government.

According to an agreement signed by U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates and South Korean defense minister Kim Jang-soo in 2007, the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have formally agreed that Combined Forces Command (CFC) will be dissolved by April 17, 2012. Some political scientists—largely individuals without military experience in the United States, and certainly many academics and politicians on the left in South Korea—have hailed the move as “necessary” and useful. In addition, most of these same individuals have repeatedly simplified these complicated issues by asserting it will simply be a matter of the ROK military buying a lot of equipment and the United States maintaining its status as an ally, albeit in more of a supportive role. The official position of the U.S. government supports this assertion.

The majority of conservatives in South Korea do not support this position and have very real concerns about national security issues directly related to the planned dissolution of CFC. Meanwhile, most Americans do not understand even the basic infrastructure of CFC, nor are they aware of the complications associated with its disestablishment. In recent months in South Korea, many respected scholars, politicians, and retired military officers have voiced concerns associated with this complete and unprecedented change in command relationships. But before addressing what South Korea’s military should do if it is to assume a separate wartime command structure by 2012, one must first address the threat that the South will face from North Korea.

The threat from North Korea’s military has not subsided, despite the overwhelming resource constraints Pyongyang has faced since the early 1990s (a better term to use when addressing what has occurred in North Korea’s military forces would be “evolved”). In fact, as North Korea’s capability to mount a large invasion built around armor and mechanized forces and supported by aircraft declined during the 1990s due to losses in fuel and foodstuffs that simply could not be replaced, Kim Jong-il focused his efforts on the build-up of asymmetric forces. These forces include short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that now number at least six hundred Scud missiles, and other shorter, more accurate missiles (such as the North Korean version of the old Soviet SS-21), long-range artillery, much of which was moved close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) during the late 1990s, and special operations forces (now estimated to number up to 180,000 men by the ROK Ministry of National Defense) that can create havoc in the South using unconventional warfare. North Korea continues to extensively develop and enhance these capabilities. Most recently, unusual live-fire exercises were conducted on the west coast (north of Pyongyang) utilizing some of the exact long-range artillery systems that would be used to target Seoul in time of war.

By focusing resources on asymmetric forces, North Korea has maintained its capability to threaten the South, and has also continued to maintain its belligerent and uncooperative foreign policy—a policy that shows no signs of changing. It is this asymmetric threat to the South that the U.S. government currently seems to underestimate when addressing the needed capabilities of its military ally, South Korea. The U.S. director of national intelligence’s congressional testimony from February 3, 2010, clearly demonstrates just how much the North Korean nonnuclear threat is being downplayed. What makes the North’s nonnuclear forces even more ominous is the fact that once they have created confusion and casualties potentially in the hundreds of thousands (many of them civilians) in the early hours and days of a potential war, this confusion could lead to weaknesses in South Korean defenses that could be exploited by North Korea’s less capable, but still extremely large and potentially dangerous maneuver forces, such as mechanized infantry and armor. North Korea’s maneuver forces have undergone reorganization and disposition changes since 2006, which have enhanced their capability to threaten the South.

It is because of this evolved North Korean threat that the ROK military faces challenges they will unlikely overcome by 2012. South Korea will not have the needed command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) systems online and operational by 2012 in terms of acquisition, training, or even probable integration with U.S. systems. The same applies when it comes to air power  The ROK Air Force continues to focus on improving its attack and air-to-air interdiction capability but must radically upgrade the airlift capability of elite airborne units if it is to truly take the fight to the North in any potential conflict. Finally, the ROK government simply does not have the ballistic missile defense capability to protect its military bases and population centers. The missiles Pyongyang holds in its growing arsenal can presently do damage to important nodes in the ROK that fifteen years ago would have been more threatened by North Korea’s now declined but still dangerous conventional maneuver forces capability. While realistic (though costly) steps can be taken to answer this threat, it will be nearly impossible to complete them within the next five years.

It is extremely important to note that while the South Korean military is highly capable of combating a traditional conventional forces threat from North Korea, it is still heavily dependent on the capabilities of the U.S. military to deter and defeat the highly evolved North Korean asymmetric threat. The North Korean military threat of 2010 is not the same as that of 1990 against which South Korea has been so well prepared to defend. While high-ranking American officials have stated that the United States can support its ally with “bridging capabilities,” in reality, the best bridging capability would be to continue the command relationship that has proven to successfully deter the DPRK for so many years. By postponing the change in wartime operational control until the ROK military has sufficiently achieved the necessary acquisition, training, personnel upgrades and transformation, the United States would be safeguarding the security and stability of its most loyal ally in East Asia.


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