US Forces OK in ROK-for Now
Image Credit: US Defense Department

US Forces OK in ROK-for Now


Charles Reeder remembers the backlash after the ‘Highway 56 Incident’ in 2002, when a couple of US soldiers driving an armoured vehicle accidentally crushed two South Korean schoolgirls, yet were found not-guilty of negligent homicide by a US military court.

‘It rocked the whole USFK,’ says Reeder, 42, a recent retiree from the United States Forces Korea, who was stationed in downtown Seoul at the time. ‘It was painful…We were out there on the gates, and it was like a siege mentality.’ South Korean activists broke into a US facility in the northern part of the capital, he recalls, and firebombed a warehouse base near the port of Incheon.

Besides being a tragic loss of young life, the incident marked a low point for the half-century long US-South Korea alliance. It dragged down US military morale here and brought to the surface tensions about the presence of the 28,500 foreign troops.

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Several new presidents and two North Korean nuclear tests later, there are signs that attitudes on both sides of the fence have changed significantly. But with the upcoming transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) back to South Korean hands and major shift in the US military stance, there are mixed and complicated feelings here about the future of the USFK’s role.

‘Meet the Common Danger’

In talking about the current state of the US-South Korea military alliance, Mark Monahan starts like any good history professor: from the beginning. Monahan teaches Asian studies and the Korean War to US soldiers here through the University of Maryland. But as a North Korean-born naturalized American and Korean War Veteran–who has served in both the South Korean and US armed forces–he recalls events in a way that is far from dry academia.

On Oct. 1st, 1953, months after the Korean War armistice was signed, the United States and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) sealed the Mutual Defense Treaty. The short, six-article pact gave the United States the right to base troops in South Korea and established that both will ‘meet the common danger’ if faced by the threat of war; North Korea is not expressly cited.

The drawdown of US troops stationed in Korea, from the nearly 600,000 that were on the peninsula at the end of the war, really began after the Nixon Doctrine in 1969, says Monahan. The US 7th Infantry Division was brought home and inactivated in 1971, not long after then South Korean President Park Chung-hee committed about 50,000 ROK combat troops to Vietnam. ‘This was a very difficult time in terms of US-ROK relations,’ he says. Perhaps more so, at the government level at least, than after the 2002 incident.

‘It’s almost like a temperature gauge,’ says John Feffer, co-director of the Washington-based Foreign Policy in Focus and editor of The Future of US-Korean Relations. ‘When the United States reduces the number of troops [in South Korea] it has historically been an indication of displeasure.’

Today, Feffer says, this is part of the unease surrounding the transfer of OPCON, which dictates who has command over the 650,000 ROK troops in wartime. He describes it as ‘the tension between being abandoned by the United States and being suffocated by the United States.’

Given to the United Nations Command at the outset of the Korean War, OPCON was transferred to the US Combined Forces Command (CFC) in 1978, and is to return to South Korea in April 2012. The ROK regained peacetime control of its troops in 1994.

Conservatives in South Korea, like current President Lee Myung-bak and many members of his Grand National Party, are the most concerned about the OPCON transfer and what it might mean for US-ROK interoperability in the event of a North Korean attack. The fact that the decision on the transfer was made in October 2006–the same month the North conducted its first known nuclear test–likely adds to their fears.

But Feffer is dismissive. ‘This is a normal evolution in the alliance — frankly, the conservatives should be celebrating,’ he says. ‘Traditionally, conservatives are concerned about sovereignty, and this should be seen as a sovereignty issue.’

Cheong Wook-Sik, representative of the Seoul-based Peace Network, says he agrees–in principle. But as the founder of an organization pushing for decreased militarism on the peninsula and more discussion about Korean reunification, he has other worries about what the OPCON transfer could mean for the future of the US military presence here.

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