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
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 questions:
1. 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?
2. 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?
In thinking strategically it is always necessary to begin with fundamental assumptions. In terms of the situation in north Korea I assume the following:
· Survival of the Kim Family Regime is the vital national interest of north Korea.
· The strategic objective of the north remains unification under control of the DPRK (and thus the elimination of the ROK).
· The 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 military Alliance).
· north 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.
· The north will not negotiate in good faith in accordance with international standards.
· The 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.
· Any 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.
The December 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.
Kim Jong-un, 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.
Given this 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.
First and 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 two.
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.
The most 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.”
Halting the 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.
Another action 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.”
The ROK/US 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.
The ROK/US 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.
Finally, 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.
David S. 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 University.