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     Mar 13, 2010
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 place.

"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 side-by-side.''

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.

Donald Kirk, a long-time journalist in Asia, is author of the newly published Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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