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South Korea: Dependence in the Age of OPCON

The transfer of wartime operational control is part of larger questions about the US-ROK alliance.

Clint Work
By Clint Work for
South Korea: Dependence in the Age of OPCON
Credit: Republic of Korea via Flickr

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.

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).

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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.

In the mid 2000s, ROK President Roh Moo-Hyun initiated talks on full OPCON transfer back to the ROK, with negotiators settling on April 2012 as the transfer date, at which point two separate but coordinating U.S. and ROK commands would have replaced the U.S.-ROK CFC. However, this plan was delayed in June 2010 following a bilateral meeting between then ROK President Lee Myung-Bak and President Barack Obama, setting December 2015 as the new deadline. In early 2014, OPCON transfer was put under review once again, as ROK officials stressed the continuing asymmetrical threat from the DPRK as a reason to delay the transfer. During their January summit meeting in Seoul, Obama and President Park Geun-hye announced that both countries would be reconsidering the timeline for the transfer. Senior South Korean officials as well as former USFK commanders have cited the need to enhance ROK command and control capabilities before taking over wartime OPCON. Reports now indicate the transfer date could be pushed back another five to seven years, with an official announcement expected during the annual U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meetings this coming October. Thus, as has historically been the case, a crucial element of South Korean sovereignty remains under U.S. auspices, with the abiding risk of abandonment or entrapment ever in mind.

From the moment feasibility studies and early negotiations regarding wartime OPCON transfer began, certain groups within South Korea have been vocal in their opposition to the move. More conservative elements have argued that the transfer would undermine the U.S.-ROK alliance, weaken deterrence and increase the risk of greater damage in the case of an actual DPRK attack. Opponents doubted the claim that by taking a more independent stance in its own defense South Korea would be treated by the North as an equal partner in military and peace talks. Moreover, in operational terms, many questioned whether the ROK possessed the necessary capabilities to take such a lead role. What is perhaps most problematic, some view OPCON transfer as a prelude to a larger U.S. withdrawal of troops from the Peninsula. In fact, U.S. officials have spoken of an earlier transfer date as a way to spur on ROK defense development and reforms, as well as enhance the U.S. military’s strategic flexibility in the region. This invariably reawakens concerns in Seoul over abandonment by its longtime ally.

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While OPCON transition gives rise to concerns over the credibility of the U.S. commitment, it also heightens the possibility of entrapment for Seoul. Which is to say, the necessary steps toward transfer of control could involve the ROK in U.S.-driven policies that it would rather avoid. This is evident in the case of missile defense. The ROK is undoubtedly concerned about the DPRK’s missile program and recently stated that its own Korean Air and Missile Defense system (KAMD) is incapable of independently intercepting the DPRK’s Rodong-class weapons. While it has various plans to upgrade its low-tier system, Seoul recently stated that it is open to the potential U.S. deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery to the Korean Peninsula. This could signal Seoul harnessing a U.S. commitment in order to avoid strategic decoupling or abandonment, but it could also lead to entrapment.

On the one hand, Seoul is open to the THAAD deployment because it offers another layer of defense at no initial cost. Also, the system could potentially be integrated into KAMD through a later purchase, thus enhancing Seoul’s ability to more independently deter the threat from Pyongyang. Taking on full operational control would require as much. At this point, Seoul denies it has plans to purchase such a system. On the other hand, many U.S. officials and defense analysts view the potential THAAD deployment as another step towards integrating the ROK into the larger US-led ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. In fact, there has been speculation that Washington is pushing Seoul to join its Missile Defense system as quid pro quo for delaying OPCON transfer. The U.S. has pressured South Korea to join its regional system for some time, which the ROK has thus far officially refrained from doing, due mainly to the negative impact it would have on its increasingly important bilateral relationship with China. Beijing views the U.S.-led regional system as a counter to its own assets. While deployment of the THAAD battery would be under USFK command and does not officially indicate Seoul’s entry into the U.S. BMD system, it is certainly perceived as a step in that direction. This likely explains why ROK Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin stressed the peninsular-nature of the potential THAAD deployment. Assurances and lack of official integration notwithstanding, the THAAD system’s X-band radar puts China’s key coastal regions well in its sights. Thus, the ROK could find its efforts to enhance its defense capabilities entrapping it, almost ineluctably, in a situation where it appears to be taking the U.S. side in the growing U.S.-China divide.

Ironically, in light South Korean officials’ outspoken desire to retaliate sternly against future DPRK provocations, the further development of ROK defense capabilities also gives rise to a sort of deterrence paradox. Dan Pinkston highlighted this point in his most recent Crisis Group blog post, for which I provided research assistance. From one angle, Seoul’s enhanced capabilities (including ISR) and its apparent willingness to strike back provide a credible threat that signals to Pyongyang that future provocations would be too costly. However, if deterrence fails and Seoul indeed responds with more robust retaliatory strikes than in the past, Pyongyang could interpret such moves as indicating the first step in a larger engagement or even full-scale war, which could, in turn, touch off a rapid escalation. This deterrence paradox gives rise to a sort of inversion of the asymmetrical entrapment concerns that historically have existed in Seoul and Washington, wherein the U.S. immediately would be involved in major hostilities that it almost certainly would prefer to avoid. Despite the ongoing relocation of the bulk of U.S. troops south of Seoul, there likely will remain a large enough contingent north of Seoul to preserve the “tripwire” that would trigger the immediate involvement of the roughly 28,500 USFK personnel in any inter-Korean conflict. To cite a point I made in a previous piece for The Diplomat, the dual deterrence role that USFK has played on the Korean Peninsula would, of necessity, be significantly limited by full OPCON transition.

OPCON transfer has real consequences, including a fundamental change in the military command structure whereby South Korea would take on a greater degree of sovereignty than it ever has. However, much of the previous discussion revolves around perception and misperception as much as it does real-world shifts. It highlights longstanding mindsets, which are a direct outgrowth of the (South) Korean national experience, which is to say a fractured and dependent one. Whether OPCON transition occurs in December 2015 as currently scheduled (which is highly unlikely) or at a later date, it is bound to eventually occur. Still, assuming the DPRK has not collapsed, the nature of that regime and the threat it poses most likely will not have changed. Moreover, OPCON transition does not signify the abrogation of the U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty, which requires U.S. involvement in the case of external armed attack. In addition to such alliance obligations, the U.S. presence in the region is assured by its own doctrine of strategic dominance, which unequivocally includes denial of another power, particularly a politically authoritarian one (i.e. China), from achieving hegemony in the region. This would appear to mitigate the fear of abandonment yet possibly increase concerns over entrapment. The overriding point is this: while the possibility of OPCON transfer is consequential and heightens enduring alliance dynamics, South Korea’s dilemma is ultimately rooted in a tragic national divide, which persists within a shifting regional architecture. There is only one thing that can change this, reunification on Korean terms.

Clint Work is a Seoul-based writer who received his M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations and will begin his Ph.D. this fall at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His focus is Northeast Asian international relations, history and political economy, U.S. foreign policy in North East Asia, and U.S.-Korean relations.