South Korea: Dependence in the Age of OPCON


The wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean armed forces is an increasingly prevalent issue among policymakers, analysts and scholars working on the Korean Peninsula and in the region. At first glance, the viability of OPCON transfer involves the North Korean threat and South Korea’s ability to deter and counter it. Recently, Seoul called for another delay of OPCON transition, stating that its current defense capabilities are inadequate to the task, including its command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and missile defense capabilities. In relation to OPCON, questions of capability and interoperability are indeed important. Nevertheless, these are a small part of a larger debate, which includes longstanding alliance dynamics related to the ROK’s ongoing dependence within the U.S.-ROK alliance structure.

Shifting Threat, Asymmetrical Alliance

Two key factors have characterized the alliance for Seoul: the North Korean threat and South Korean dependence on the U.S. for its own security. The factors are connected and have evolved notably over time. During the Cold War, the threat from Pyongyang was overwhelmingly conventional in nature, marked by the forward deployment of significant numbers of troops and artillery. That said, Pyongyang engaged in constant low-scale, unconventional provocations, including several very high-profile attacks such as the Blue House raid in 1979, the Rangoon bombing in 1983, and the mid-air bombing of Korean Airlines Flight 858 in 1987.

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In the early 90s, with revelations about its nuclear program, the threat from Pyongyang took on a more ominous cast. Since then, North Korea has become a de facto nuclear state, culminating with its nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013, with a fourth believed imminent. Though estimates vary, it is generally believed that the DPRK possesses several nuclear weapons and may soon develop the capacity to miniaturize and deploy a warhead on a ballistic missile, of which it has one of the world’s largest fleets. Moreover, Pyongyang is believed to possess samples of biological pathogens it could potentially weaponize, as well as 2,500-5,000 metric tons of chemical weapons. All of this is to say that the DPRK threat is very real, well established, and characterized by massive (though dated) conventional forces and increasing asymmetric capabilities.

The other evolving yet still salient factor in the alliance has been South Korea’s dependence within an inherently asymmetric alliance. The more unequal the alliance, the easier it is to form and the longer it will last, as each side receives different, complementary benefits as it delivers on its side of the bargain. In the case of the U.S.-ROK alliance, it began as a classic patron-client relationship, wherein the U.S. (as patron) provided the ROK (as client) with security and economic largesse in order to ensure its survival and stability. Put differently, the ROK traded its autonomy (full sovereignty) for the U.S. security guarantee, while becoming a key bulwark in the US Cold War strategic framework. Yet as theoretical studies on alliances have shown, dependence for the weaker party is characterized by two risks, abandonment (i.e., defection on the part of the U.S.) or entrapment (i.e., being committed to a policy deemed not in its national interest).

Historically, the risk of abandonment has pushed the ROK to deepen ties with the U.S. yet simultaneously develop its own capabilities. Its commitment of troops and material to the U.S. war effort in Vietnam is a significant example. The ROK committed the second largest number of foreign troop behind the U.S., lost more than 5,000 lives in the effort, and played a key role in securing the central coastal region of South Vietnam. This contribution signaled the ROK’s commitment to the alliance as well as exploitation of it, provided significant battlefield experience for South Korean armed forces, and delivered a crucial boost to the ROK’s economic development. That boost included much-needed foreign currency earnings and industrial incubation for key chaebol such as Hyundai and Hanjin in construction and transportation, respectively. However, the latter half of Seoul’s Vietnam deployment proved an acrimonious experience.

Following the announcement of the Nixon or Guam Doctrine in mid 1969, which stated that Asians should provide the manpower for their own wars, Washington redeployed the 7th Infantry Division from South Korea back to the United States. This was a notable reduction of roughly 20,000 of the 62,000 U.S. troops then stationed in South Korea. In addition, the U.S. prevailed on the ROK to delay withdrawing South Korean forces from Vietnam in order to prevent a security vacuum from emerging as it began pulling back from its own commitment. Washington did this by threatening further removal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula if Seoul pushed ahead with its own withdrawal from Vietnam.

As Oberdorfer writes, President Park Chung-hee was shaken by these moves, viewing them as “a message to the Korean people that we won’t rescue you if North Korea invades again.” Soon thereafter and without any prior notice, Washington began its historical rapprochement with Beijing, thus officially substituting a tripolar framework for the former bipolar divide in Asia. This gave the U.S. far more strategic flexibility. Along with the final US withdrawal from South Vietnam, this series of events heightened South Korea’s suspicions regarding the credibility of the US commitment and spurred Park’s efforts to increase its independence vis-à-vis the U.S. Those efforts included his long-desired plan for heavy and chemical industrialization (HCI), an abortive attempt to develop a South Korean nuclear weapons program, and the first exploratory discussions between North and South Korea under the guise of Red Cross talks at Panmunjom. In the late 70s, President Jimmy Carter’s bid to remove the 2nd Infantry Division from South Korea, although unsuccessful, kept the fear of abandonment alive.

The fear of entrapment is the other side of dependence. Initially, the greater an alliance partner’s dependence, the more likely the costs and risks of abandonment will outweigh those of entrapment. However, as the relative balance of power within the alliance shifts over time, entrapment becomes more of a problem. One instance occurred during the first nuclear crisis in 1993-94, during which “the ROK government was alarmed both at the onrushing nature of events and the apparent disposition of the United States to ignore its counsel and interests.” Another example was the rift between the Bush Administration and the successive Kim and Roh Administrations concerning engagement with the DPRK. Where Seoul favored continued engagement based on the Sunshine Policy, the Bush White House took a much less accommodating stance, underscored by the inclusion of North Korea in the so-called “Axis of Evil.” The DPRK’s nuclear and missile tests and notable provocations over the following decade, as well as the consecutive election of conservative South Korean administrations, brought both allies closer together. Still, Seoul continues to call for greater ownership of the nuclear issue as well as a broadened approach, supplementing nonproliferation with efforts toward economic development within North Korea. 

Developed, Democratized, Yet Dependent

South Korean leaders have consistently sought to dilute their dependence on the U.S. As part of this effort, the ROK has worked to develop its own armaments industry and upgrade its technological capabilities. Park’s HCI drive in the early 1970s was a key part of the process. ROK capabilities have since evolved from the early production of firearms and ammunition to the more recent manufacture and export of light fighter jets, and the development of advanced SAR-equipped remote sensing satellites and dual-use commercial and military communications satellites. Following the Pentagon’s lead, South Korea has begun its own Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), driven by the economic logic and efficiency gains of commercial and military spin-on/spin-off, as well as the overriding goal of enhancing command and control capabilities. In line with this trend, the ROK Ministry of Defense has been outspoken in its need to pursue netcentric reforms aimed at increasing the overall interoperability of South Korean armed forces. Despite this notable progress, though, Seoul, by its own admission, cannot independently check the threat from Pyongyang.

South Korea is neither fully dependent nor fully independent. It is neither a pawn of empire nor a fully equal ally. The ROK’s postwar history is a unique example of rapid economic development, modernization, and eventual democratization. As a consequence of this remarkable historical evolution, it has become a much more independent actor in the U.S.-ROK alliance and in the larger international system. Nevertheless, it remains the smaller of the two partners, with its security ultimately dependent upon the U.S. In other words, while South Korea has unquestionably enhanced its profile, it remains semi-sovereign.

Control over a nation-state’s armed forces is a significant, if not the most fundamental, element of state sovereignty. Thus, calling South Korea a semi-sovereign state within the U.S.-ROK alliance is not so much a radical leftist critique as a statement of fact. The history of OPCON reveals Seoul’s fundamentally truncated sovereignty within the U.S.-ROK alliance. In July 1950, following the disastrous early phase of the Korean War, President Syngman Rhee handed over control of ROK armed forces to the United Nations Command (UNC), then under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur. In 1978, the Combined Forces Command (CFC) was established, thus forming a U.S.-ROK integrated command structure, thenceforth always under the four-star U.S. Army General commanding United States Forces Korea (USFK). While peacetime OPCON was transferred back to the ROK in 1994, wartime OPCON remains under CFC auspices.

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