I have a friend who is about to enter military service in Korea. He has spent much of his youth in American boarding schools and college, and now must do his civic duty. As the days are x-ed off his calendar, he is apparently becoming more and more interested in the events surrounding the Korean military, and has raised his concerns with the transfer of wartime command to the Koreans from the Americans. His questions and comments are filled with concerns about the deterioration of the U.S.-ROK relationship, about throwing away Korean money to buy American war-goods, about the complete U.S. withdrawal from Korea and, in time of a war between the U.S. and China, the abandonment of Korea by the Americans, with Japan being the primary U.S. forward line of defense.
Much of the discussion of the change in operational command has followed similar lines. There are those who argue that the U.S. control of the Korean military at times of war is a clear violation of South Korean sovereignty – after all, how can a nation claim to be sovereign if it cannot control its own military? Even in Iraq Washington is preparing to transfer operational control of the military over to the Iraqi government, even though the government is barely viable and the Iraqi security forces are even less so. Yet more than fifty years after the end of the Korean War, Washington retains the Combined Forces Command (CFC) structure in Korea.
The CFC served several purposes through history. At first, it was clear that the Korean military, in the wake of the Korean War, was clearly unable to defend itself should North Korea launch a second attack. In addition, despite some well fought battles by specific South Korean units, the overall impression among U.S. military planners was that the South Korean military had proven weak, incoherent and ultimately ineffective during the Korean War. If Washington were to have to intervene again on the peninsula, it wanted to have immediate control over the placement and actions of its on-the-ground ally.
Over time, the CFC's purpose evolved. As the Cold War rolled along, the CFC allowed Washington to view the Korean military as an auxiliary, right along the front lines with communist Chinese and Russian influence, and could utilize those forces should any larger conflict with Moscow or Beijing break out. As the South Korean government changed, and people like Park Chung Hee came to power, the CFC structure served less as a check on Soviet and Chinese designs and more as a restraint on South Korean adventurism. Many of the restrictive military agreements with the South were intended to keep the South Koreans from rolling north and triggering a war Washington had little desire to enter.
With the end of the Cold war, however, the CFC became even more of an anomaly than it was previously. Without the Soviet challenge, with a China bent on economic ties rather than ideological or military conquest, Washington's control of the Korean military became a relic of convenience, rather than one of strategic necessity. This is one of the realities that current South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun noted even before taking office, and many of his early speeches revolved around the need for South Korea to prepare an independent defense posture. While much of this was seen as Roh's excessive nationalism or anti-Americanism, it may well have been more a realization of the inevitable than a desire to change the status quo.
U.S. interest in the Koreas fell precipitously following the end of the Cold War. This is why North Korea decided to begin a series of managed nuclear crises – to make itself remain a significant center of attention and thus retain the aid and support of its neighbors. For South Korea, as for neighboring Japan, the sudden disappearance of the Soviet Union, the creation of the anomalous uni-polar world, left Seoul and Tokyo facing a very new reality. No longer did Washington absolutely need South Korea or Japan, and the two nations quickly found that their own national interests – be they economic, political or security related – did not always match U.S. interests, and without the need to bottle up Communisms' spread in East Asia, the united States would be more selective in its protection of Korean or Japanese national interests.
Both South Korea and Japan have, thus, launched on major military overhauls, though Seoul has been the late comer to the game. The reversion of operational control during wartime is just one part of this shifting reality. Washington is just as happy to abandon the arrangement as Seoul, though U.S. military officials at Yongsan, who have made a career out of preparing for the North Korean threat, are less than happy to see the arrangement – and potentially their livelihood, end. And in Seoul, former defense ministers and military officials have come out opposing the rapid transfer of command, as the South Korean military is neither equipped nor trained for its own independent defense... yet.
Whether now, or 2009, or 2012 or later is better or worse, the change is coming. A significant drawdown of U.S. forces in Korea is coming (and has in some respects already begun). If Washington goes to war with Beijing, the battle is not one that will benefit from U.S. troops on the ground – China has too many people to make an invasion viable, even if the supply lines could be kept operational. Korea serves as a training ground for u.s. forces, and as a location for the deployment of rapid reaction forces throughout the region. It is not the frontline bastion against Chinese aggression. As was seen in June 1950, the Peninsula is barely defensible and the supply lines by sea would be rather tenuous at best (these very supply lines are what Yi Sun Shin cut, thus ending the Hidyoshi invasion of Korea centuries ago).
So, is it good or bad that the CFC is being dissolved? Does it matter? The question should not be one of good or bad, but one of how Korea prepares itself for this inevitable reality. Washington is ready to move on, Korea is not yet prepared. It has only now launched its first imaging spy satellite, it still lacks a strategic deterrent, or the capability to strike back at much of North Korea. And Seoul must look beyond building a military aimed solely at defense against North Korean invasions – the minnow remains between two whales.
A properly designed military improvement program could prove a boon to Korean technology and manufacturing – already her big chaebol have their defense production arms. But it will cost money. A lot of money. And it may even require the overhaul of the Korean military system, away from a conscription military and toward the creation of a professional military. One thing is certain, the shape of U.S.-Korean relations is changing, and the military relationship is simply the most obvious. But it is not a normal situation for a sovereign nation to give up control of its own armed forces to another nation, except due to conquest, and Washington's shifting plan for the Pacific no longer needed massive captive forces in Korea. The CFC was on its way out (even if Seoul hadn't asked for it).