South Korea reluctant to take command
By Donald Kirk
SEOUL - North Korea's rhetoric is such a familiar noise during United
States-South Korean war games that most people don't pay attention. Nor does
anyone outside the US and Korean military establishments seem to care much
about the exercises themselves - Key Resolve and Foal Eagle.
The real exchange of fire seems to be going on quite separately. That's a
debate among Americans and Koreans over one of the most contentious issues
between the US and South Korea, namely the plan to give "operational control"
over all military operations to a South Korean commander in the event of war
with the North.
From a distance, one might assume an issue of nationalism is at
stake, that Korean leaders and military officers are fed up with the Americans
telling them what to do and are demanding complete control over all their
forces in war as well as peace.
That's not what's going on. Quite the reverse. The Koreans have severe doubts
about whether they're ready, from a lot of abstruse technological points of
view, to assume all that power and responsibility if the stuff ever hits the
fan in earnest around here. They've been saying for a long time, hold on, wait
a second, can we delay another year or two, another decade, maybe forever.
The problems of coordination between the US and Korea on military issues are
complicated, often unreported and never properly understood outside the
military - and often within as well. This one, however, keeps burbling to the
surface with interesting if not disturbing regularity.
The latest is that South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Tae-young is saying the
transfer of operational control, known universally by the acronym OPCON, really
cannot happen by 2012. That's the deadline year by which the US commander in
South Korea, General Walter Sharp, swears both sides will have gotten it all
together, meshed all the gears, and be ready to take on the enemy - all under
the command of a South Korean general.
Whenever OPCON is done, as Lieutenant General Benjamin Mixon, commanding
general of US Army Pacific, a component of the US Pacific command, has put it,
"We don't control the fight." Mixon offers that simple explanation not as
criticism but as the best way to convey the overall implications.
What he and Sharp don't say is that the South Koreans seem none too certain
they can control it either. Defense Minister Kim has said the decision to
complete the transfer in 2012 is "bad timing", and South Korea's President Lee
Myung-bak may raise it when he sees President Barack Obama later this year - at
the latest during the Group of Twenty economic gathering in November.
The disagreement on OPCON puts the South Koreans up against what some see as
extravagant claims on Sharp's part that all the pieces are rapidly falling into
"We were able to work out command and control systems on everything," Sharp
told a forum in Washington in December. North Korea's launch of a long-range
Taepodong-2 missile nearly one year ago "has made us stronger to be able to
work as one team", he said. "We've come a long way, coordinating to make sure
we are prepared to fight today if we have to," and "we are very proud to serve
Sharp was militarily precise about meeting the exact date for "OPCON
transition" - it will "take place on 17 April, 2012", he said, when the
US-Korea command "will be the supportive command". The commander of the US
Seventh Air Force would lead the combined air force command, but "on the ground
side" US forces "will be a supporting relationship".
The implication of such words is that commanders on all sides will be making
flowery speeches in a great ceremony featuring Korean and American military
bands as the historic Combined Forces Command, under the same general who
commands US Forces Korea, ceases to exist. The United Nations Command, dating
from the Korean War when the troops from 16 nations came here, would presumably
also become even more of an anachronism.
Sharp seemed quite clear on what had to be done to make the new relationship
work. "We will see how we work through crisis management if we have to go to
war," he said. "We are working very hard to make sure our command and control
system works with theirs."
He did not say it would be easy, just that it would happen. Much of the success
of the transfer depends on the ability to deal with the high-tech structure of
a modern military machine. Within "the strategic information command", said
Sharp, exist "many subsections we will work with on a day-to-day basis".
Sharp spoke of OPCON with the zeal of a convert - or at least a military man
who did not win those four stars of a general without learning how to say yes
to those above him in the chain of command.
Like his predecessors in South Korea, Sharp got with the program at the behest
of Donald Rumsfeld when he was secretary of defense under George W Bush. He
advances a line of argument that gained currency here while the leftist Roh
Moo-hyun was president from 2003 to 2008, a period in which the US-Korean
alliance was sorely strained amid notoriously unsuccessful efforts at
reconciliation with North Korea.
"Why is OPCON so important?" Sharp asked. "I truly believe the number one
responsibility of any country is to be able to take command of its own people."
Moreover, he said, "If we delay the OPCON transition, it sends the wrong
message to North Korea."
The message that North Korea is getting, however, may be quite different
considering the reservations not only of the South Koreans, who've been
expressing misgiving ever since Rumsfeld's arm-twisting missions, but also of
Americans familiar with the issues.
Bruce Bechtol, professor of international relations at the Marine Corps Command
and Staff College in Quantico, Virginia, charged in a recent paper that
political scientists and politicians "have repeatedly simplified" what are
"complicated issues" by asserting that all South Korea has to do is stock up on
equipment while the US remains "in more of a supportive role". Concerns have
mounted within South Korea, he noted, while few Americans have any
comprehension of what's going on.
Nor does Bechtol see any change in North Korea's position. "The threat from
North Korea's military has not subsided," he observed. "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."
That's by way of saying that North Korea's forces, while inferior in terms of
conventional capabilities, now include hundreds of missiles as well as
long-range artillery that could cause havoc even if the North's planes, tanks
and other gear ran out of gas, broke down or got wiped out. "North Korea
continues to extensively develop and enhance these capabilities," he said,
citing live-fire artillery exercises in the Yellow Sea using the same systems
that could just as easily target Seoul.
Thus "the ROK [Republic of Korea] military faces challenges they will unlikely
overcome by 2012", Bechtol wrote. "South Korea will not have the needed
command, control, communications, computers and intelligence systems online and
operational by 2012 in terms of acquisition, training, or even probable
integration with US systems."
Moreover, air power is just as shaky. South Korea "continues to focus on
improving its attack and air-to-air interdiction capability", said Bechtol,
"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." Nor does
South Korea "have the ballistic missile defense capability to protect its
military bases and population centers" and needs at least five years to get
what it requires.
The Pentagon shows no signs of backing down, and the US command in South Korea
puts out periodic claims that OPCON is on track.
The next war, though, will no doubt confound all forecasts. A sign of the
terrors is that a special US military team, said to specialize in removal of
weapons of mass destruction, is participating in this year's exercise.
They bring "some unique expertise," said Sharp. "If we ever went to war, they
would naturally come also" - though it's not clear who would be telling them to
remove those weapons of mass destruction or, for that matter, what type of such
weapons they're so skilled at taking out, chemical biological or nuclear.