Informal Institute for National Security Thinkers and Practitioners - News from the Associate Director, Security Studies Program
Saturday, March 2, 2013
The Elephant in the Room? north Korea and the Myth of ROK/US “OPCON Transfer,” Deterrence of the Kim Family Regime, And Preparation for What Comes next on the Korean Peninsula
I am working on the paper below. I will have an editorial based on it and I will be turning this into journal paper for a Korean journal in the next couple of months. But I thought I would share my draft with those who read this blog. V/R Dave
The Elephant in the Room?
north Korea and the Myth of
ROK/US “OPCON Transfer,”
Deterrence of the Kim
And Preparation for What
Comes next on the Korean Peninsula
By David S. Maxwell
In light of the
actions of the Kim Family Regime over the past year, it is time to take a hard
look at the military strategy of the ROK/US Alliance and ask some difficult
Should the ROK/US Alliance continue the so-called “OPCON Transfer,”
which is actually the dissolution of the ROK/US Combined Forces Command (CFC),
in the face of the continued existential threat posed by north Korea?
Are there actions that the ROK/US Alliance should be taking in view of
the situation in north Korea with the potential for war and regime collapse,
continued provocations, global illicit activities of the regime (to include
proliferation) and the crimes against humanity that are being perpetrated on 23
million Korean people?
strategically it is always necessary to begin with fundamental
assumptions. In terms of the situation
in north Korea I assume the following:
of the Kim Family Regime is the vital national interest of north Korea.
strategic objective of the north remains unification under control of the DPRK
(and thus the elimination of the ROK).
key condition the north requires for successful execution of its campaign plan
to unify Korea is US troops off the Peninsula (thus splitting the ROK/US
Korea will not give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons (it deems this is
necessary for regime survival on multiple levels from deterrence to obtaining
political and economic concessions to procuring hard currency.
north will not negotiate in good faith in accordance with international
north has been deterred from resuming large-scale hostilities and executing its
campaign plan because of its belief in the strength of the ROK/US Alliance.
diplomatic actions and temporary solutions to the problems on the Peninsula
(e.g., management of crisis situations) rest on the foundation of a strong
ROK/US Military Alliance.
Next it is
necessary to understand the situation on the Peninsula. Since the succession of
Kim Jong-un to the leadership of the Kim Family Regime it is clear that he will
continue to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and execute
the same strategic playbook that has been in effect for 60 years. Although
“tactical” adjustments may be seen and new concepts implemented (e.g. “Image
First Politics”) to address internal and external conditions we can see that
there is no significant deviation from the long-term strategy of the regime.
test launch of the north’s ballistic missile program and the February nuclear
test confirm that the regime is resolute in its pursuit of these capabilities
and an examination of the history of negotiations with the north reveals that
the north will use negotiations to deceive, mis-direct, extort, and manipulate
the international community for its own tactical and strategic ends.
The regime will
continue to conduct provocations to attempt to gain political and economic
concessions. It continues to strengthen
its military capabilities though with a decided emphasis on its asymmetric
strengths. However, it still retains a massive conventional military force that
can inflict an extremely high degree of destruction and suffering on the Korean
people, particularly in the Greater Seoul Metropolitan Area, the largest
population center in Korea.
despite having attended military school and serving in symbolic military
positions, has no significant military expertise or an understanding of the true
capabilities of the ROK/US Military Alliance.
He depends on advice of his senior military leaders and members of the
elite within the regime. However, since the
north Korean system is based on personal loyalty to the leader this results in
sycophantic leaders who will not tell the emperor when he wears no
clothes. Military advice in this kind of
situation is very dangerous as it is very likely that Kim Jong-un is receiving
assessments of the relative strengths of the ROK military and north Korean
People’s Army along the lines of the north can defeat the South if only the US
forces were not present on the Peninsula.
One very real potential danger is that when it is perceived the regime’s
vital national interest is threatened internally or externally, Kim Jong-un
might decide that the only means of survival is to execute the campaign plan to
unify the Peninsula. Therefore the possibility of regime collapse and war go
hand in hand.
complex situation what are some answers to the initial questions posed at the
beginning of this essay? The remainder
of this paper will focus on some key military, intelligence, and law
enforcement activities that can be taken to support diplomacy, deter war for as
long as possible and prepare for the inevitable disintegration of the Kim
Family Regime in whatever form that takes place.
foremost the ROK/US Military Alliance must not only remain strong but most be
shown to remain strong. Frankly, the
dissolution of the ROK/US Combined Forces Command under the guise of “OPCON
Transfer” appears to north Korea to be a splitting of the Alliance capabilities.
From the north’s perspective it is another step by the US toward reducing its
commitment to the ROK and shows a continuing pattern of reduction since
President Carter was in office. Examples
include unilaterally withdrawing US nuclear weapons under President George H.W.
Bush to ending Exercise Team Spirit under President Clinton, to a slow reduction
of forces over time and the rapid withdrawal of an entire Brigade in 2004 under
President George W. Bush (driven by Secretary Rumsfeld’s desire to remove all
forces from the Peninsula since he assessed they were being wasted as they
could not be used elsewhere). From a Pyongyang
viewpoint this appears that its Sun Tzu-like strategy to split the Alliance is working
and it will only be a matter of time before the north has the correlation of
forces (by its calculation) to successfully execute its campaign plan. Now the so-called “OPCON transfer” and the
repositioning of US forces to locations south of Seoul further confirm the
north’s assessment. Although neither the
ROK nor US government believes the Alliance is being weakened, the perception
of a declining commitment must be reversed.
We must view Alliance actions from the perspective of the north and in my
view the north perceives that its long-term strategy is working. Despite the provocations of 2010 and two
missile launches in 2012 and a nuclear test in 2013 the ROK/US Military
Alliance continues on the path to dissolution of its strongest military
capability by 2015. The message this
sends to the north is that they can continue to conduct provocations and
develop its missile and nuclear capabilities and the ROK and US will do little
to demonstrate Alliance strength and resolve.
The following is
a list of recommendations and rationale that the Alliance should consider for
immediate implementation in order to influence the north’s perception and
ensure that the right level of deterrence is maintained while at the same time supporting
diplomatic actions and setting the groundwork and conditions for whatever comes
next in the north, be it either war or regime collapse or a combination of the
The first action
that should be taken by the Alliance is for the two Presidents in their first
meeting upcoming this spring to reaffirm and expand the 2009 Joint Vision
Statement that established the strategic end state as peaceful unification of
the Korean Peninsula. Although the
peaceful part will be dictated by north Korea’s decisions and actions,
nonetheless it is imperative that the end state of unification be articulated
in word and deed. This provides the
strategic guidance for all future Alliance actions.
important military recommendation is to cease the “OPCON Transfer” and
transformation process as it is currently planned. The ROK/US Combined Forces Command must
remain intact. The ROK/US CFC is the
key to deterrence and must remain as the foundation of the Alliance and support
all other actions of the instruments of national power. Without the demonstrated strength of this
military organization the north is unlikely to remain deterred from large-scale
conflict as it has been for the past six decades. Furthermore, this action would provide one of
the strategic sticks that President Park Geun-hye is looking for to support the
implementation of her new policy of “trustpolitik.”
transformation process will not only send the most important and powerful
message to the north, it will also likely result in saving resources for both
the ROK and US governments. Although
there are many sunk costs with the development of facilities in Camp Humphreys
and other installations, an immediate decision to suspend the process could
allow both the ROK and US governments to shift resources to invest in critical
military capabilities. For the ROK,
rather than investing in independent war fighting capabilities that are
redundant with many that reside within US forces; it could focus its resources
on developing its critical capabilities and building on its strengths
particularly in its ground maneuver forces that are so critical to success in
either collapse or war.
Although the ROK
US CFC should remain intact, there is one action that should be taken to
transform it. In 2015 rather than
dissolve the ROK/US CFC a Korean General should take command with a US General
as Deputy Commander. This will send a
very important signal to the north and the region and will be critically
important as the ROK/US CFC operates in north Korea during collapse or war
because it will allow unification efforts to proceed with ROK military
leadership in command thus providing long-term legitimacy for operations within
the northern part of the Peninsula.
Some will argue
that the US should never agree to allow US forces to be under the command of a
foreign commander. However, due to the
structure of the Alliance the Korean commander of the ROK/US CFC would answer
to the Military Committee from which he would receive strategic guidance and
direction just as the current US military commander. This is why I can call the “OPCON Transfer” a
myth. The Military Committee consists of
both ROK and US National Command and Military Authorities. The ROK and US governments in effect exercise
co-equal operational control of the combined war-fighting forces. They do so now with a US commander and they
would continue to do so with a Korean commander.
Although it may
seem counterintuitive to some a Korean commander would further reinforce the
perception of a strong Alliance as the US would be stating through its actions
that it has the full trust and faith in the leadership of a Korean commander
and would illustrate how the Alliance has evolved to a level of co-equal partners
with each nation bringing the strengths of their military forces to the command
that also overcome the inherent weakness of the other.
to reinforce the strength of the Alliance as well as enhance the
interoperability of ROK/US forces would be to return US forces to active
patrolling of the DMZ that was suspended in the 1990’s. However, rather than establish a US sector
that previously existing surrounding the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom, US
forces would now be integrated on a rotating basis throughout the entire 250
kilometers of the DMZ. This would send a
powerful message of Alliance resolve. It
would also provide an excellent training opportunity for US ground combat
forces and whether US forces are permanently stationed for one year or a
rotation program is implemented, US forces would have a day-to-day combat
patrolling mission focus. There would be the added benefit of US ground combat forces
departing Korea would be at a high state of small unit combat readiness. This would serve the US Army well in a
post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan operational environment.
The US must also
continue to improve execution of and support for the Proliferation Security
Initiative (PSI). The US must encourage
other nations to join the initiative as well as to assist participants to
execute operations to interdict north Korean proliferation. Law enforcement and military capabilities
must be brought to bear on this problem.
Effective PSI operations can put immense pressure on the regime and cut it
off from a significant amount of hard currency through its proliferation. Again, this can provide another strategic
stick to support President Park’s policy of “trustpolitik.”
Military Alliance also must focus efforts on a comprehensive influence campaign
to target multiple audiences in north Korea.
It must use the full range of media and information technologies to provide
information to the general population to lay the groundwork for the situation
after war or collapse. Defector organizations
with their limited resources have shown that it is possible to get large
amounts of information into north Korea and this should be supported and
expanded. An influence campaign must
target the second tier leadership to influence them to maintain the coherency
of the security forces to try to prevent both the loss of control of weapons of
mass destruction as well as the rise of a resistance force following war or
regime collapse. The second tier
leadership will be critical in the unification process and deliberate plans to
coerce and/or co-opt them must be in place.
Alliance must continue to focus attention on the human rights tragedy
perpetrated by the Kim Family Regime. Pressure
must be maintained on the regime in all venues to illustrate the abuses of the
Korean people. Together the ROK and US
governments should work to establish and lead a community of interest that will
target the suffering of the north Korean people and maintain international
visibility on the human rights atrocities being committed by the Kim Family
Regime in the north.
national intelligence services, diplomats, and law enforcement agencies must
work to interdict the regime’s so-called “Department 39” that is responsible
for the global network of illicit activities that produces the hard currency
and luxury goods that keeps the regime in power. A global effort must be made to target the
network and coerce and co-opt and when necessary incarcerate members of this
network. Co-opting members could provide
for a wealth of intelligence information about the regime. Co-opted members could also provide options
for employing them in a post-war or post-collapse scenario.
Recent talks in
Washington between ROK and US defense officials affirmed that the
transformation process is on track and will be executed in accordance with the
current plan. However, US Ambassador to
Korea Sung Kim also recently and realistically stated that the transformation
would not occur if the ROK military is not ready in 2015. With the election of President Park Geun-hye
there is an opportunity to undertake a realistic assessment of the way ahead for
the ROK/US Military Alliance.
Given the Kim
Family Regime’s actions it is time to re-evaluate the ROK/US Military Alliance
strategy and the path that it is on.
The north poses an existential threat to the ROK and whatever happens on
the Korean Peninsula will have global effects.
To be prepared for war or collapse, and more importantly to deal with
the aftermath, the Alliance must begin active preparations now and cease
squandering scarce resources on unnecessary and wasteful transformation. Most importantly, the ROK/US Combined Forces
Command should not be dissolved but instead should be strengthened. While no one can predict what will eventually
happen on the Peninsula, the two most dangerous scenarios, war and collapse,
are very real possibilities and the ROK/US Military Alliance will be the most
important element of ROK/US national power that will determine the outcome. The actions of the ROK/US CFC will lay the
foundation for the eventual unification of Korea and that is the only end state
that can bring peace and stability to Northeast Asia. If the US is serious about a rebalance to
Asia, it must focus its efforts on the most dangerous place in the region.
Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the
Security Studies Program in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown
University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command
and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and
served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the
National War College. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford,
Ohio, the Command and General Staff College and the School of Advanced Military
Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense