South Korea: Who Should Have Wartime Command? (Page 2 of 2)

As was the case in Cold War Europe, there is lingering admiration for socialism even if its “real existing” version is horrid and corrupted. And there is some pride that North Korea is an independent Korean state, not as globalized and Americanized as the South, standing tall against the Americans, Chinese and the Japanese. In short, the South Korean left is fairly ambiguous on whether the U.S. or North Korea presents a greater threat to South Korea, and the OPCON reversion plays to both that anti-Americanism and ambiguity in dealing with the North.

Previously, during the Cold War, the U.S. retained control of the ROKA in peacetime as well. So long as the USSR existed, it was generally understood that North Korea was a continuing invasion threat. Also, South Korea was a military dictatorship until the 1990s. That military was tightly bound in training and socialization to the U.S. presence. So there was little resistance in traditional national security circles. Curiously, then, it is the left in Korea that is more nationalist – both anti-American and mildly pro-North – while the right is “internationalist” – pro-alliance and virulently anti-communist.

As these contending political forces ebb and flow in Korean political life, attitudes toward the OPCON transfer have shifted all over the place. In my own experience on the conference circuit and teaching undergraduates in Korea, I have seen little sympathy for the transfer and a fair amount of anxiety. But that concern is more of the free-rider than anti-communist variant. The U.S. presence is a shield that allows Seoul to spend a lot less on defense than it otherwise would and that is widely understood. Similarly, conscription terms in South Korea would almost certainly be longer without USFK. It is well known that South Korean interest in unification is fading and that there is great fear for the costs. Insofar as the OPCON transfer would force more of the load onto South Korea, that is the primary concern I have seen – not fear of North Korean attack or U.S. imperialism. In this way – to push the Koreans to take their own defense more seriously – the transfer might be a good idea.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

On the other hand, there are the coordination costs. Today, U.S. and Southern commands are integrated into a Combined Forces Command. The OPCON transfer would abolish CFC and be replaced by “independent, parallel national commands” acting in close liaison. This works elsewhere, in NATO and Japan, for example, but none of those commands seriously envision a massive ground war in traditional fashion, potentially involving hundreds of thousands of casualties. This does seem a questionable choice on strictly security grounds, regardless of the (rather bogus and manipulative) “neocolonial” claim. Why abolish CFC/OPCON if it will only replace it with something less organized and less unified?

Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website,

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief