Military officials from South Korea and U.S. have agreed to retain and expand the Combined Forces Command (CFC) after Washington hands over wartime operational control to an ROK general in 2015, Seoul-based The Chosun Ilbo reported on Tuesday.
ROK Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin was expected to brief President Park Geun-Hye on the plan— which will be formalized during bilateral defense consultations in October— earlier in the week.
Earlier the two militaries had anticipated dissolving the CFC once wartime operational control was assumed by the ROK military. This week’s report said the two militaries now intend to transform the CFC “into a bigger joint command structure to strengthen cooperation,” after 2015, without providing any details on what that entailed.
It might include expanding areas of cooperation to new forms of warfare like cyber. Earlier this week South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense announced that it intended to bolster the country’s cyber defenses following a cyber attack on its largest financial institutions to media outlets last month. The MOD outlined a plan for doing so that included creating a new department to handle cyber deterrence policy, as well as stepping up cooperation with the U.S. on cyber security issues.
One sticking point in retaining the CFC will be determining if the most senior U.S. officer assigned to Korea will fall under the command of the ROK general heading the CFC.
The U.S. and South Korea had initially planned to transfer operational control of the CFC over to ROK forces in April 2012. Following provocations from the North in 2010, the two nations decided to push back that date to December 2015.
Nevertheless South Korean forces have been assuming greater responsibility over time. Indeed, earlier this week the two nations announced a new contingency plan for responding to low-level aggression from the North in which Seoul would take the lead with U.S. forces acting in a supporting role, if at all.
South Korea’s ability to assume almost sole responsibility in some operations has been enabled by its growing capabilities. From 2008-2012 South Korea ranked as the fourth largest arms importer in the world, with the U.S. accounting for 77 percent of its arms purchases. During that time period South Korea was the destination for 5 percent all foreign arms sales worldwide. Although mostly under the radar, South Korea has built an increasingly capable naval force as well.
Seoul has also been adopting a more assertive military doctrine towards its northern neighbor. This week President Park directed ROK military officers on the ground to respond immediately to any North Korean provocations “without having any political considerations."
"As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, I will trust the military's judgment on abrupt and surprise provocations by North Korea as it is the one that directly faces off against the North," Park said, according to the London Telegraph. "Please carry out your duty of guarding the safety of the people without being distracted at all."
Park’s defense minister also promised an “active deterrence” against Pyongyang and seemed to suggest Seoul would consider carrying out preemptive strikes on North Korean nuclear and missile sites.