South Korea has sounded the alarm again over the plan to disband the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command and transfer of wartime operational control of ROK forces to South Korea by 2012. Defense Minister Kim Tae-young came out for the second time last week and said: “I hope that the U.S.-led defense scheme will remain further, given the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.” While he was careful to appeal to the core U.S. security concerns on the peninsula (nuclear and missile threats), what should really make both countries think twice about a premature transfer is the mounting instability within North Korea and the asymmetric land-based threat the country poses.
The timing of the transfer couldn’t be worse, as North Korea ramps up for 2012, the year that marks the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung (the country’s founding father and “Great Leader”), as well as the year Pyongyang projected it would become a “strong and powerful nation” — a projection the regime could seek to manifest in shows of force. Growing domestic instability, as seen in unprecedented public protests and a hike in hunger-related deaths, along with a looming succession crisis, will also make the next three years a particularly bad time to experiment with a hasty reconfiguration of South Korea’s command and control, potentially putting allied contingency operations at stake. Three years is also not enough time for the South Koreans to fill the existing gaps in their defense capabilities (in terms of missile defense, command and control systems, critical logistical capabilities, etc.), especially with a shrinking defense budget.
The United States’ initial rationale for the transfer is also increasingly being called into question (see here and here). And the decision to go ahead with the transfer despite South Korea’s protests, and despite the increasing instability across the DMZ, only further reveals that our view of the North Korean threat is dangerously myopic. We tend to solely focus on the nuclear threat and not the asymmetric challenges that the country presents, such as Pyongyang’s long range artillery deployed along the DMZ or their surprisingly formidable special operations forces — the largest in the world, at (reportedly) one million strong. The damage North Korea could do on the ground is unimaginable, as they like to remind us. The maintenance of a unified command — one time-tested over 30-plus years — is an assurance that the allies will be ready on the ground if conflict arises.
In the long run, OPCON transition may indeed prove to be a step worth taking — while maintaining close coordination between U.S. and ROK forces, of course. There’s no doubt, for instance, that having ROK forces at the helm during any sort of military confrontation would further legitimize the South Korean government’s post-conflict role on the peninsula. But transition now only makes sense if South Korea is ready, which their senior leaders are plainly telling us is not the case.
Leslie Forgach is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.