If the war of words between the US and North Korea leads to any armed action, South Korea will be caught in the crossfire with unimaginable devastation
By Skand Tayal*
The increasingly bitter rhetoric between the Donald Trump Administration and North Korea has put South Korean (Republic of Korea) President Moon Jae-in in a serious predicament. Earlier this month, after the test of an alleged ICBM by North Korea, US Permanent Representative to UN Nikky Haley told the UN Security Council: “The world is on notice.. (US is) prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies, one of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces. We will use them if we must, but prefer not to go in that direction.”
If the war of words between the US and North Korea leads to any armed action, South Korea will be caught in the crossfire with unimaginable devastation. Trapped in this dilemma, on 17 July, South Korea sought to open a direct line to North Korea and proposed to North Korea military talks on 21 July to avoid hostile acts near the heavily militarised border. The proposed talks were to be held at Panmunjom truce village on the border used also for previous inter-Korean talks.
North Korea did not respond to the proposal but in an article in the North Korean official newspaper Rodong Sinmun on 20 July, it signalled to South Korea that “The US imperialist aggressors present in South Korea will be primary target of the Korean Peoples’ Army’s strikes once it opens fire.” Attempting to drive a wedge between US and ROK armies, the article also alleged that, “Their (US) sinister intention is to ignite a war against the North at any cost by reducing the South Korean puppet army into cannon fodder and fanning up the military confrontation between the North and the South.”
The Commander of the US Forces in Korea (USFK) also serves as C-in-C of the UN Command as well as the ROK/US Combined Forces Command (CFC).
For a long time since the Korean War (1950-53), the ROK armed forces were under the US Command. As the ROK grew in self confidence, an integrated headquarters for ROK/US Combined Forces Command was established in 1978; which is now responsible for planning for the defence of South Korea.
Major USFK components include the Eighth Army, Seventh Air Force and US Naval Forces in Korea. USFK control more than 85 active sites in ROK and about 28,500 US military personnel are deployed in South Korea. US armaments on Korean Territory include 140 M1A1 Tanks, 100 advanced fighters, 70 F-16s, 70 AH-64 Helicopters etc. The formidable capacity of US 7th Fleet, Pacific Fleet and Seventh Air Force Command is within reach to augment the US strike capacity at short notice in case of need.
The mission statement of CFC is “Deter hostile acts of external aggression against the Republic of Korea by a combined military effort of the US and the ROK; and in the event deterrence fails, defeat an external armed attack against the ROK”. The CFC is commanded by a US General who reports to the national commands of both US and ROK.
The CFC now has operational control (OPCON) over more than 600,000 active duty military personnel of all services from both the countries. In wartime, some 3.5 million ROK reservists could also be called for action. It may be noted that two year military duty is compulsory for all South Korean males.
For recruitment, training and budget, the Korean units are independent and under the command of ROK Generals during peacetime. Only during the time of war, do the Korean units come under the command of CFC. Peacetime control over its forces had been returned to South Korea in 1994 after the advent of real democracy in South Korea.
During the Presidency of Rho Moo-hyun (2002-2007), South Korea had initiated negotiations with the US for the transfer of full operational control over its forces — even during wartime — to South Korea. An agreement was finally reached in 2008 to establish two complementary coordinated commands with the ROK as the ‘supported nation’ and the US as ‘supporting nation’. The left leaning Rho Moo-hyun administration sought a more independent security relationship with the US. One of the objectives was to acquire a stronger hand in dealing with North Korea. A time frame of 5 years was fixed to complete this command transfer. However, in 2010, the transfer date was pushed back to 2015, after North Korea was accused of torpedoing a South Korean warship ‘Cheonan’.
After the 2007 elections, South Korea saw two successive rightist conservative administrations till 2016, first under President Lee Myung-bak and later under the truncated administration of Park Geun-hye. Under their rule, the relations with North Korea sharply deteriorated. North Korea also embarked on an aggressive programme of nuclearisation and missile launches exacerbating the tension in the Korean peninsula.
In these tense circumstances, the conservative South Korean government in October 2014 thought it prudent to delay the return of wartime control of the South Korean military to itself. Instead of setting a new target date for the transfer of command the two sides adopted a “conditions-based approach” to transferring control “to ensure the combined defence posture remains strong and seamless.” When President Park Guen-hye was criticised by the liberals for breaking her election promise to retake wartime control by 2015, her spokesman said that, “We must deal with this issue in a realistic and coolheaded manner, considering national security.”
The newly installed liberal President Moon Jae- in had pledged during his campaign to achieve OPCON transfer during his term. President Moon was Chief of Staff to liberal President Rho Moo-hyun and is his political heir. The South Korean Ministry of Defence is now working on completing the OPCON transfer by 2022 — before the completion of President Moon’s term. In a policy roadmap prepared by the Presidential Advisory Committee released on 19 July, it was stated that the Government would seek transfer of wartime operational control as soon as possible.
It is axiomatic that for a sovereign country, it makes no sense to cede control over its own armed forces to another country in a wartime situation where its own citizens’ lives are at stake. Analysts have rightly noted that: “Putting the US in command in the event of a war on the Korean peninsula means US global strategy will take precedence, while South Koreans’ interest become secondary.”
Now, with an increasingly beleaguered Trump in the White House, the Korean Peninsula is poised on a knife’s edge. For President Moon Jae-in, the top priority would be to prevent any conflict between US and North Korea at any cost.
*The author, a former IFS officer, was India’s ambassador to the Republic of Korea.