There have been many misunderstandings about the planned transfer of operational control from the commander of the Combined Forces Command to a Korean commander. To better understand what is involved, it is critical to differentiate the three issues that are commonly associated with the transfer:
- Who will command Korean and U.S. forces if conflict occurs in Korea?
- How will Korean and U.S. forces be organized to support the commander?
- What part of the defense effort will be borne by each country?
The first change is typically depicted as a transfer of the command of South Korean forces from a U.S. commander to a ROK commander, but this is a mischaracterization. Today, ROK and U.S. forces are commanded by the U.S. commander of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) and his Korean deputy. If, heaven forbid, the U.S. commander were killed or incapacitated in a war, his ROK deputy would assume command. Then there would be a ROK commander of ROK forces with all the basic command, control and communication tools for conflict. A command change could occur in minutes today and operate smoothly; big investments and changes would not be required.
The second change is closely tied to the first. Today, ROK and U.S. forces would fight as part of CFC; ROK and U.S. personnel work side-by-side in planning for and potentially fighting any conflict. But with the transfer of operational control, CFC will go away. Thereafter, South Korean personnel will plan and lead the Korean defense, and U.S. personnel, working separately, will prepare support plans and assume a supporting role.
But this characterization suggests that the transfer has already partially occurred. In 2005 President Roh Moo-hyun insisted that the CFC transfer the planning for a North Korean collapse to the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff. If the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff prepares the plan, presumably the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman would execute it. Thus in this area, the ROK already appears to have partial operational control; the transfer appears to have worked well.
The third change is not directly tied to the first two. Some worry that the United States will remove its forces from the ROK and force the ROK into total defense independence, perhaps out of anger for the transfer of operational control. But senior U.S. personnel, including Vice President Cheney, have said that the United States is not abandoning South Korea, at least for now. Still, the United States must reevaluate its defensive commitments in Korea. Consider the current situation.
The ROK began adjusting its defenses in 2005 when the Ministry of National Defense announced its Defense Reform Plan 2020. This plan will reduce the overall active duty ROK personnel by about 25 percent and the Army from 47 combat divisions in 2005 to about 24 in 2020. These reductions will be offset by modernizing ROK military equipment, some of which is many decades old, and by increasing ROK military professionals from 25 percent to 40 percent. The resulting 2020 South Korean force should be more capable in defensive operations, though maybe not in offensive or stabilization operations, as expected in any future unification.
The plan assumed no reduction in U.S. ground force commitments. But the U.S. ability to commit ground forces has changed. As recent press reports indicate, the U.S. army and marine corps have few combat units ready to send to Korea if a conflict breaks out because of commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not known how long the Iraq and Afghanistan commitments will last or what other commitments may develop. General B. B. Bell has argued that future U.S. commitments to Korea need to be more in terms of air and naval forces; that would be true whether or not there was a transfer of operational control.
The South Korean and U.S. reductions in ground forces are incompatible and must be resolved. But the U.S. forces committed to conflict in Korea already cost the United States about $100 billion per year in terms of personnel costs, research and development, and acquisition. While most of these forces carry out other missions in peacetime, they must still be equipped and trained to handle a North Korean invasion. This U.S. commitment has been a substantial subsidy for the ROK economy. Mutual interests in Northeast Asia security have made the United States willing to accept this cost. But the strength of the South Korean economy, the other commitments of U.S. ground forces and the ROK desire for self-reliance suggest the need to transfer more of these costs (but not all of them) from the U.S. to South Korean taxpayers.
While North Korean conventional force capabilities have decayed, their weapons of mass destruction threats have grown substantially. Even if North Korea is less capable of conquering the ROK today, it is more capable of causing substantial damage, especially with nuclear weapons. No one can predict how the forces on either side would respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction. The bottom line is simple: President Roh’s insistence on military self-reliance means that South Korean taxpayers must accept some combination of paying more for their own defense or living with a lower level of security.
The writer is a researcher at the Rand Corporation in California, the United States.
This commentary originally appeared in Korea Times on December 6, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.