Monday, October 7, 2013

The Rising East: U.S.-South Korea Alliance Troubled

Apologies to those who tire of Korea issues.  But Richard has written a very insightful piece that cannot go unanswered.  He has done am important service by identifying many of the key issues and while this gets at many of the issues and emotions (for some) regarding the alliance, I would like to point out a few troubling things from my perspective.  My response is not directed at Richard but is in response to some of the ideas in his article.

First of all the ROK-US Alliance and Japanese-US Alliance are different.  That should be obvious to most but there are many who say we should structure them similarly (which means with the militaries as separate organizations and not combined in any way).

Second, the above may not be feasible given that there is a much different threat to the South than there is to Japan and it may not make sense to organize into separate commands from a military effectiveness standpoint (and unity of command –assuming we still believe in that principle).

Third, we are kind of putting the cart before the horse in saying that the US mission in Korea has changed to one of regional contingencies.  That may be the desire, but it forgets one very important fact:  the nKPA and the Kim Family Regime still pose an existential threat to our treaty ally, the ROK.  While I applaud long term thinking and planning and force posturing, I think we need to be able to most effectively address the most likely and most dangerous threats we face in Northeast Asia and that comes from the north, at least for the foreseeable future.

Fourth, the tone of the article (which takes on the tone of those to whom Mr. Halloran spoke) is once again of a big brother-little brother relationship with unnamed officers chastising the ROK leadership for allegedly not wanted to take full responsibility for the ROK.  Perhaps if these same officers would view the alliance on a more partnership basis then we might be able to conduct a transformation that serves both nations' interests and is militarily acceptable (recognizing always that politics will trump military necessity in almost every -99.9% -  case).

Fifth, we should really try to understand the ROK fears of a declining US commitment.  Words can only go so far.  The ROK has seen a continuous decline in US military commitment since 1978.  GEN Thurman stemmed that tide with the return of the helicopter battalion which is really a return of a previously stationed unit so it is not in any way an increase in capability, just a return of what was taken for operations elsewhere.  But as noted in the article this unit's personnel will be in Korea on a rotational basis and the Koreans know full well that fiscal challenges in the US could easily put a halt to that rotation.  And with plans for other units to go to a rotational presence this contributes to the perception of a declining US military commitment.

The bottom line is that the Alliance should conduct a strategic assessment based on the current and future threats in Northeast Asia beginning with those on the Peninsula and then recommend to the national leadership the best way to organize its combined military forces and then split the costs equitably.  We should stop with the discussion of OPCON transfer and move to organizing the forces in the best way to conduct military operations to achieve Alliance interests (number one being the defense of the ROK).  The OPCON transfer and the move of US forces south was directed and not really open for input from the military forces (and not really open to input from the ROK military as the ROK side of the decision was made by a President who had little understanding of military operations or of the real threat posed by the north).   A thorough and objective strategic assessment (not one with preconceived outcomes)  should be the first task of the ROK-US joint working group.

The Rising East: U.S.-South Korea Alliance Troubled

By Richard Halloran 10/07/2013
Slicing through the pretty words and diplomatic rhetoric coming out of a meeting of the American and Republic of (South) Korea defense ministers in Seoul last week, it soon became evident that the U.S.-ROK alliance is troubled.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin, sought to paper over differences about who would be responsible for defending South Korea and who would pay for it. On the other hand, Hagel was forceful in confirming that the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” protected South Korea.
A basic issue was the transfer of operational control over South Korean forces in wartime. Today, an American general has, in military lingo, OPCON over both South Korean and U.S. forces should war break out. South Korea controls peacetime training and deployment of ROK forces.

The U.S. has long wanted to shed wartime OPCON, asserting that South Koreans should take full responsibility for their own defense. But ROK leaders have twice succeeded in putting off that transfer until late 2015, arguing that they were not ready and that North Korea would be tempted to attack after the change.
In a press conference, Kim said: “Secretary Hagel and I share an understanding on the condition-based OPCON transition.”
He added: “We have further agreed to create a ROK-U.S. joint working group to discuss these issues.”
Hagel said he was optimistic that they would agree and “we will get to where we need to be.”
Translation: We have agreed on nothing and will keep on talking.
Further, the U.S. wants to dismantle the Combined Forces Command in which American and South Korean officers share the planning and logistic support to U.S. and ROK forces. Both sides make the same argument as that with OPCON transfer.
The underlying fear of the South Koreans, which civilian officials and military officers express freely in private, is that the U.S. will withdraw forces from Korea despite repeated pledges that the U.S. was committed to the defense of South Korea.
In a communiqué, Hagel ”reiterated the firm and unwavering U.S. commitment to the defense of the ROK" not only with forces on the Korean Peninsula but from anywhere else in the world.
Actually, the U.S. has long been reducing its forces in Korea. The U.S. position, which the South Koreans don’t accept, has been that the presence of U.S. military forces is not necessary to confirm treaty and political commitments to the ROK.
(Continued at the link below)

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