OPCON Transfer and the American-ROK Alliance

August 8, 2013

On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed titled “A Test of Responsibility in Korea: Seoul now wants the U.S. to retain military command on the peninsula.”

The alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) is at a critical juncture. Koreans see an alliance at-risk due to ongoing US fiscal challenges and their impact on the defense budget.  Koreans, and others in the region, fear that this lead to American retrenchment.  Senior ROK leaders may fear this so much that they are willing to risk their own domestic political backlash as well as international derision by requesting that the United States remain in command of the ROK/US Combined Forces Command, thus postponing the so-called OPCON Transfer scheduled for 2015.

I would just like to explain why the ROK-US military alliance is important to the US from a fundamental realist construct of fear, honor, and interest.  First, one of North Korea’s key strategic aims is to split the ROK/US Alliance and remove US forces from the peninsula.  The strength of the ROK/US alliance is the singular reason why the north has not reinitiated large scale hostilities since 1953.  This is according to the highest ranking North Korean defector, Hwang Jong Yop, who incidentally was the father of the North’s Juche ideology.  Hwang Jong Yop stated that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il so feared a US nuclear response that they would not risk war until US forces were off the peninsula.  Second, it is a matter of honor that the United States lives up to its commitments.  The 60 year old ROK/US Mutual Defense Treaty is not a commitment that we should easily forget especially when we consider how the ROK has developed into such a successful and advanced nation enabled by the security guarantees of the alliance.  Lastly the security of the Korean Peninsula is of significant interest to the US.  What happens on the Korean Peninsula, whether war, regime collapse, provocation or proliferation will have global effects that cannot be avoided or ignored.  We should heed this wakeup call from the ROK leaders who are thinking strategically and long term.


David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with 30 years of service and graduate of the US Army Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies and the National War College.


Photo Credit: Yu Huson, 2nd Infantry Division Public Affairs, US Army