Don’t gut the US-South Korea alliance

Members of South Korea and U.S. Special forces take part in a joint military exercise conducted by South Korean and U.S. special forces troops at Gunsan Air Force base in Gunsan, South Korea, November 12, 2019.  Photo taken November 12, 2019.  Capt. David J. Murphy/U.S. Air Force/DVIDS/Handout via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY

For over a dozen years, the United States and South Korea have been planning to transform their military command structure known as Combined Forces Command — a remarkably integrated and effective system constructed during decades of alliance cooperation. It is the most tightly woven system of integrated command and control the United States possesses anywhere in the world.

Throughout the armed forces of the two nations, South Koreans would command Americans, and vice versa, at all sorts of levels of tactical operations. In the unthinkable event of war against North Korea, ultimately more than one million South Korean soldiers as well as several hundred thousand Americans would fight together in defense of South Korea and the broader region. Separate American commands in Japan and the broader Pacific region, and a U.N.-sponsored command, would provide support and reinforcements as well as protection for threatened regional interests such as the nation of Japan and the U.S. island of Guam.

The current plan, being assiduously prepared by American and South Korean personnel together at the Combined Forces Command headquarters, would replace the American military officer who runs the overall alliance in times of war — currently General “Abe” Abrams of the U.S. Army — with a South Korean four-star officer instead. Such a move would mess with these painstakingly-created structures to no apparent benefit and much evident risk, at a moment when the alliance is vulnerable not only to North Korean attack but to domestic political trends within both South Korea and the United States. It is a bad idea. If it ain’t broke, as the saying goes, don’t fix it.

Understanding the “opcon” plan

For many South Koreans, putting an officer from their own country atop the Combined Forces Command would be an important symbol of the restoration of their full sovereignty, even though the American general already takes his order equally from civilian presidents in both countries.

The concept dates back to the Bush administration in the United States and the Noh administration in South Korea — two regimes remembered for their problematic handling of the alliance and at times their apparent disinterest in sustaining it. Initial plans were so hastily drawn, and wrongly motivated, that they envisioned breaking up the command into separate geographic and functional pieces — as if the pace of combat on the modern battlefield, especially in an area so small and densely populated as the Korean peninsula, would allow such neat subdivisions.

That earlier plan for “opcon (operational control) transfer” has now been improved. It would instead amount to “opcon transition,” where the American commander and his Korean deputy simply swap roles. President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, largely for personal political reasons, would like that change to occur on his watch — meaning by 2022, when he must leave office — even though previously agreed preconditions for transfer include a stable Northeast Asian region, which clearly shows no signs of arriving anytime soon.

Rather than simply delay implementation of this plan, which was originally supposed to happen around 2012, it is time for Washington and Seoul to scrap it. No amount of lipstick on a pig can change the fact that it is a bad idea, for several reasons ranging from good old military common sense, to strategic conditions in and around Korea today, to broader global concerns, to U.S. domestic politics:

  • Even though the Republic of Korea has a very fine and battle-tested military — ranking it, in my judgment, among the world’s five best armed forces — it is and will always remain the junior partner in the alliance. (That is true even though it devotes a higher percent of its GDP to military spending than any other U.S. ally.) Common sense dictates as much when one country has a $40 billion annual defense budget and the other spends more than $700 billion, owns 5,000 nuclear weapons, and possesses the world’s only military with truly global reach.
  • American military leaders may not be any smarter or braver than their South Korean counterparts. But they tend to have this broader, global perspective, informed by previous tours in the broader Middle East, Europe, or elsewhere.

Even though any war between North and South Korea would have the peninsula itself as its first prize and main battleground, such a conflict would inevitably have huge regional and worldwide consequences. For starters, North Korea now has dozens of nuclear weapons, some of which may even be deliverable beyond the peninsula. Moreover, North Korea’s main ally is China, and South Korea’s is the United States. Even though Beijing and Washington would not want a direct clash between their respective militaries in such a war, it cannot be ruled out. Nothing could shape the future of planet Earth in the 21st century more consequentially than U.S.-China war — and indeed, few military scenarios could put the American homeland or survival of the human race itself at comparably great risk. As such, South Korea does not have greater claim to lead the alliance based on the vital interests at play.
In tactical military terms, whoever leads the Combined Forces Command, an American general or admiral will remain in charge of both the Indo-Pacific Command and the multi-national United Nations Command focused on upholding peace on the peninsula. Right now, the same American officer leads both Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command. That is desirable, and consistent with key military precepts of simplicity and clarity of command and control, as emphasized by the landmark 1986 Goldwater-Nichols legislation in the United States. Division of responsibilities into separate commands with different leaders runs at cross-purposes with this core principle of good military operations.
If South Korea is to wrest away the top command position in the alliance from American allies, where will the process stop? Why would Britain, France, and Germany not all demand their turns at running NATO command in Europe, for example? Each of those countries spends even more on its armed forces than does South Korea. Ever since the “Pershing rule” dating back to World War I, the United States has sought to maintain overall authority for any major military operation in which it participates. One need not be a chauvinistic American to see that this basic concept makes sense in a world where American military power is predominant over that of any ally.
And that argument leads directly to the last: While it may be in President Moon’s political interest to rush the opcon transition process on his watch, it is not wise in terms of American politics. President Trump clearly is not strongly wedded to the alliance. He has threatened to pull U.S. forces off the Korean peninsula several times, and at present is demanding that South Korea increase by five-fold its payment for the costs of the 30,000 U.S. forces normally based on the peninsula. If Seoul pushes the opcon issue, it could seriously undermine and put at risk the future of the alliance — at a time when you can be sure that up in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un will be watching closely, and looking for opportunities to make mischief of one type or another.

Some policy proposals are just bad ideas. Opcon transition belongs in that category. It should be gracefully either put on the back burner or, better yet, scrapped altogether.