The Elephant in the Room? North Korea and the Myth of ROK/U.S. “OPCON Transfer”
In light of the actions of the Kim Family Regime over the past year, the election of a new President of the Republic of Korea (ROK), and the reelection of the U.S. President, it is an appropriate time to take a critical look at the military strategy of the ROK/U.S. Alliance and ask some difficult questions, the most important being: Should the ROK/U.S. Alliance continue the so-called “OPCON transfer” – which is actually the dissolution of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) – in the face of the continued existential threat posed to ROK by North Korea? Toward this end, this essay suggests various modifications of ROK/U.S. Alliance strategy, including an argument as to why the ROK/U.S. CFC should not be dissolved.
The first action that should be taken by the Alliance is for both Presidents in their first meeting on May 7, 2013 to reaffirm the 2009 Joint Vision Statement, which established both countries’ desired strategic end state as the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula. Although the degree to which unification will be peaceful will be dictated by North Korea’s decisions and actions, it is nonetheless imperative that the end state of unification be articulated in both word and deed. This provides the strategic guidance for all future Alliance actions.
My most important military recommendation is to cease the OPCON transfer and transformation process as it is currently planned. The ROK/U.S. CFC must remain intact. The ROK/U.S. CFC is the key to deterring North Korea. It must remain the foundation of the Alliance, and support all other actions by 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 South Korean 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 an extremely important and powerful message to the North, but will also likely result in conserving resources by both the ROK and U.S. governments. Although there are many sunk costs with the development of facilities in Camp Humphreys and other installations in South Korea, an immediate decision to suspend the process could allow both the ROK and U.S. governments to shift resources to invest in critical military capabilities. For the ROK, rather than investing in independent warfighting capabilities that the U.S. military already possesses, 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 confronting either regime collapse in the North or prosecuting a war with it.
Although the ROK/U.S. CFC should remain intact, there is one action that should be taken to transform it. In 2015, rather than dissolving the ROK/U.S. CFC, a South Korean General should take command with a U.S. General as Deputy Commander. This will send a very important signal to the North and the region, and will be critically important if and when the ROK/U.S. CFC operates in North Korea during collapse or war; it will allow unification efforts to proceed with ROK military leadership in command, thus providing long-term legitimacy for operations within the north of the Peninsula.
Some will argue that the U.S. should never agree to allow its forces to be under foreign command. However, due to the structure of the Alliance, the Korean commander of the ROK/U.S. CFC would answer to the Military Committee, from which he would receive strategic guidance and direction, just as would the current U.S. military commander. This is why the “OPCON transfer” is a myth. The Military Committee consists of both ROK and U.S. National Command and Military Authorities (NCMA). The ROK and U.S. governments in effect exercise coequal operational control of the combined warfighting forces. They do so now with a U.S. commander and they would continue to do so with a Korean commander.
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