The candidates for the upcoming presidential election in South Korea have not presented any clear vision of military and security issues facing the country. In my view, the new president, and the Combined Force Command (CFC) between the Republic of Korea and the United States, will face two major issues: OPCON transfer to the South Korean military, and how ROK forces can best cooperate with USFK to deter North Korean cyberattacks.
This two-part series examines each of those issues, and the questions they pose for the next South Korean president. (See part two, on cyberattacks and cybersecurity, here.)
Looking first at the ROK’s intention to transfer wartime OPCON to the South Korean military, there are four questions to be considered.
What actions can the alliance and the CFC take today to improve the prospects of success for an ROK-led CFC in the future?
First, South Korea should abandon its ongoing development project for an indigenous Command-and-Control (C2) structure. Instead, South Korea should model its C2 system on the U.S. Joint All-Domain C2 system, to facilitate compatibility between the two militaries.
Adoption of a common language for the CFC is urgent and essential for an ROK-led CFC to establish an effective defense posture. It is not practical to expect USFK personnel to use Korean at a suitable level of fluency and accuracy, so the use of English should be a mandatory requirement for all Korean CFC personnel. English is already the common language for conducting the annual combined defense drills, and a common language is likewise indispensable for conducting combined military operations. All doctrines, operational manuals, and TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) should be written in English. Command HQ should be relocated to Seoul, to be close to the Ministry of National Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The South Korea-U.S. alliance has evolved beyond its initial status as a military pact against North Korea’s conventional military provocations, and it now needs better analysis to define the type and scale of other kinds of threats. It must prepare for future gray zone conflicts in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in the South and East China Seas, and must be capable of dealing with nontraditional threats, such as Chinese cyberattacks and the dissemination of disinformation for geopolitical ends.
A vision for the future of the South Korea-U.S. alliance should encompass not only ideological values and common interests, but also strategic room for each nation to be itself. This will help maintain a regional framework of peace and stability that protects and respects sovereignty, and resists unilateral assertiveness and breaches of international rules and norms.
How can the alliance expedite condition-based OPCON Transfer?
The current conditions set by South Korea for OPCON transfer appear unfeasible for the country to achieve by itself, and perhaps even impossible to do completely. A new approach is needed to formulate achievable conditions, which both militaries can agree to implement.
First, the burdens and roles of the ROK-U.S. combined defense posture should be shared appropriately. South Korea should be responsible for enhancing decapitation strike capabilities to support USFK, and the U.S. responsible for appraising Seoul of crucial strategic theater information, not just for the Korean Peninsula, but also beyond it. This may lead South Korea into a closer military relationship with Japan, as indeed the United States desires. In addition, the U.S. must allow South Korea to change its military strategy from the current defense-only posture to an offensive one.
Second, common doctrines, operational concepts, and TTPs should be adopted for all South Korean combat units, including service-based CFC component commands. In particular, common operational concepts and TTPs for cyberwarfare and space situation awareness are needed for a common operational picture (COP) between the South Korean and U.S. militaries, to enable integration for an all-domain joint force. South Korea’s existing operational concepts are single domain, limited to a single service’s responsibility, and purely defensive. New doctrines should encompass new roles and missions for South Korea, including preemptive strike capabilities, such as KSS-Ⅲ submarines, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, Hyunmoo-series strategic missiles, and LCV strike groups.
Third, as part of burden-sharing, the ROK armed forces must enjoy more flexibility to exercise a wider range of defensive Rules of Engagement. This will include independent self-defense for soldiers in confronting North Korea, and also an active defense posture against the North to be triggered by specific indications and warning situations. The roles of USFK, as well as of the United Nations Command, can then be redefined as go-between peacekeepers or peacemakers.
What is the best way to frame the issue of wartime OPCON, both for the United States and for South Korea?
The most helpful framing is the integration of peacetime OPCON into wartime OPCON. Theoretically, there is no clear distinction between the two, with the only differences being the kinds of threat presented by North Korea. In peacetime, irregular warfare predominates, such as the infiltration of spy boats and special forces flanking our lines, but in wartime all-out war between the two Koreas would restart. If the ROK military is capable of peacetime OPCON, then there are no specific reasons why wartime OPCON should be treated differently.
How is OPCON transfer affected by expanding the scope of the ROK-U.S. alliance beyond the Korean Peninsula?
Establishing a Combined Combat Development Capability Command between the ROK and USFK, in an analogous way to NATO, will help develop combined operations between the South Korean armed forces and USFK, granting more strategic flexibility for the latter. Dispatching USFK and the South Korean military to theater operations beyond the Korean Peninsula requires interoperability of weapons and systems, and also jointness of C2s, COPs, and TTPs.
There are also opportunities for the South Korea-U.S. alliance to expand operations to include further partners. The AUKUS arrangement, which is supporting a nuclear-powered submarine project for Australia, is a model for such expanded cooperation, and we look forward to a future in which the ROK-U.S. alliance has the foundation necessary for external joint operations.
Lastly, to consolidate their external operations beyond the Korean Peninsula, the South Korea-U.S. alliance needs new partners and new ways to work together in the Indo-Pacific region. These partners could include ASEAN, Australia, and NATO members, who would cooperate in a variety of areas: security- and defense-related science, health, technology, industrial bases and infrastructure, supply chains, etc. The ROK-U.S. alliance also needs to become integrated into wider multilateral security dialogues and frameworks, such as the Quad.
Some expect OPCON transfer to be a less important issue for the next administration, but this is doubtful, whoever becomes president. There will, however, be a reassessment of what constitutes South Korea’s national interest, and grand strategies formulated for the election campaign are unlikely to survive contact with reality. At least we can hope that the next president does not paint themselves into a corner on OPCON transfer, as President Moon Jae-in unfortunately did.