I am beginning to hear worries at the working level about the scheduled changing of basic command arrangements in 2012 between U.S. and South Korean forces on the Korean peninsula.
If the plan is implemented, the long-standing system whereby a U.S. general would command both countries’ armed forces in any wartime scenario against North Korea is to be dissolved. Instead, a new approach would have each country in effect command its own military units (while trying to coordinate closely, of course). This means that South Korea would have much greater direct control over operations than it would have now. The concern is that, for a number of practical reasons, 2012 may prove to be too soon for this change.
If those concerns are warranted, Washington and Seoul should be willing to delay the date of transfer of operational control, or “opcon.” But to my mind, the basic concept of dividing command never made sense and perhaps should even be repudiated. It violates the basic principle of unity of command. Since the tragic Iran hostage rescue attempt of 1980, when no single military service or major command had primary responsibility for an operation that went badly awry, the U.S. has spent three decades trying to strengthen this principle in its own military and in concert with its key allies.
The origin of the 2012 plan is telling. The main drivers included Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun (who sadly committed suicide in May over a financial scandal). The motives of both men were less than sound. Frustrated by South Korea’s resistance to various U.S. diplomatic ideas of the time, as well as the difficulty in deploying U.S. forces in Korea elsewhere in a manner that would help with his concept of a more flexible American global military system, Rumsfeld may have seen the idea as a way to weaken and downplay the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
For his part, Roh was anxious to assert Korean prerogatives, especially against a U.S. administration with which he often clashed. So he liked the idea of a plan that would seem to advance South Korean sovereign rights.
This history is worth recalling because it tells us two things. First, the broader political motivation for the opcon transfer plan was suspect at best. Second, on this issue at least, the recent Republican legacy in East Asia is not strong and should not provide the GOP any bragging rights on its management of U.S. national security affairs. This point is worth making because the Obama administration appears a bit on the defensive and may worry that any delay in implementing the plan would somehow signal weakness and spur GOP criticism.
In fact, relations between Seoul and Washington now are substantially better than they were during most of the George W. Bush years. In fairness, the improvement began under Bush, once Rumsfeld was gone from the Pentagon and Roh was gone from the Blue House in Seoul.
President Lee Myung-bak and President Obama have established a reasonably solid relationship, and people such as Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell as well as Assistant Secretary of Defense Wallace Gregson and Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the Pacific Command — not to mention American officials in South Korea and their Korean counterparts — are doing a solid job of alliance management. Among other things, South Korea is pursuing new initiatives to contribute to the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan.
As such, any consideration of a delay in the opcon plan — or even a fundamental rethinking of it — should be seen as a sign of confidence and maturity in the alliance rather than the opposite. If there is a need to evaluate the 2012 plan afresh, that should happen without apology, without undue haste and without any predetermined conclusion.
Meanwhile, nothing about a new review would signal any weakening in military capabilities or political resolve, a point that Washington and Seoul should underscore as they announce any plan to rethink the future of the alliance and its military characteristics.