Strategic Risk vs. Strategic Vision: OPCON Transition within the ROK-U.S. Alliance

September 3, 2013

Strategic risk and strategic vision have posed difficult decisions for Korean leaders for millennia.  Developing alliances and selecting allies have always been decisions of paramount importance in seeking a strategy that allows Korea to survive as an independent state.  That risk versus vision calculus has not changed in the twenty-first century and is just as important and complicated for South Korean leaders today as in past security dilemmas during Korea’s 5,000-year history.  The scheduled transition of wartime operational control (OPCON) from a U.S. lead to a South Korean lead in 2015 is just such a dilemma.

When Republic of Korea (ROK) President Roh Moo-hyun stated in 2006 that he wanted the South Korean military to take the lead in defending its own country, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was only too eager to say yes.  President Roh’s position was nationalistic, rooted in pride, and lacking adequate assessment of whether the ROK military had, or could acquire, the capabilities necessary to make this shift. Furthermore, Roh’s position fundamentally lacked a clear vision of how to bring about this tectonic shift in strategic partnership roles.  But, Secretary Rumsfeld was fighting two wars in the Middle East and needed some relief of forces commitment, so he agreed to President Roh’s proposal.  In October 2006, Rumsfeld and the ROK Minister of National Defense, Yoon Kwang Ung, agreed that wartime OPCON of ROK forces under a U.S.-led command would end sometime between October 2009, and March 2012.  The fact that North Korea and its million-man army stood within artillery range of Seoul seemed not to have factored into the mutual agreement, not to mention that the plan to transform respective ROK and U.S. defensive capabilities on the Peninsula had little substance in terms of implementation.

Roh’s vision was one of a ROK military lead within the ROK-U.S. alliance, not of the future of the Korean Peninsula.  From his perspective, Seoul in 2006 possessed the world’s 15th largest economy; its products and technology were demanded across the globe; and South Korean democracy was at its zenith.  For the most part, past ROK presidents did not have these glorious achievements to speak of.  President Rhee Syng-man feared for his country’s future when he passed operational control to General Douglas MacArthur in July 1950 in a document referred to as the “Pusan Letter.”  Later, President Park Chong-hee focused on building a foundation for national economic success, but led the effort to narrow OPCON of ROK forces from the multilaterally-focused United Nations Command to the bilaterally-focused ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command in 1978.  While this was happening, North Korea’s Kim Il-sung was slowly beginning to abandon his force deployment strategy of one relatively evenly distributed across the North Korean territory in the 1970’s (30%, 30%, and 40% north to center to south) and pushed the bulk of his military forces south toward the Demilitarized Zone (10%, 20%, and 70%) in a process that became known as “creeping normalcy.”  Essentially, this redistribution of North Korean offensive force structure, along with the deployment of approximately 250 long-range artillery systems within range of the greater Seoul area, pushed the concept of strategic risk to the forefront and constrained South Korea’s strategic vision for decades.  During this time, the risk of war was calculated to be too great in both political and military terms.  With the security provided by the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command, this calculation began to change as ROK economic and diplomatic strength grew under accountable, democratic governance and as U.S. interests and relationships in the region evolved into more stable economic and political discourse.  In 1987, the dictatorship of self-appointed President Chun Doo-hwan came to an end and South Koreans gained their beloved democracy. From that point on, the economy boomed, and three subsequent presidents—Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam, and Kim Dae-jung—focused on building a vibrant South Korean democracy and economy; not on the ROK-U.S. alliance and its mission to deter the ever-growing North Korean threat (though President Kim Young-sam did secure armistice OPCON of ROK forces in 1994). President Roh, however, came into office in 2003, and focused on a vision of a ROK-led national defense.

To support his plan for South Korean lead in the defense of its own country, President Roh’s administration developed a plan to field a more lethal and technologically advanced force through what is referred to as the Defense Reform 2020 plan. Under this plan, defense budgets would increase by 6-to-11% each year.  But implementation of the plan did not seem to keep pace with North Korea’s ever-growing asymmetric military capabilities. In fact, at the time of the agreement on OPCON transfer, North Korea was developing new longer-range missiles and conducting its first nuclear test, thus increasing strategic risk not only for the ROK, but for the U.S. as well.  As Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama agreed in 2010 at the Toronto G20 economic summit to a delay of OPCON transition until December 2015, the North continued these worrisome developments, all the while conducting deadly tactical-level provocations resulting in the deaths of both civilian and military personnel.  The threat from the North remained, even while the ROK National Assembly failed to meet the defense spending levels that would enable the ROK military to take the lead of its country’s defense.

The world and Northeast Asia did not stand still during these developments.  Tensions between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo Islets in the East Sea (a.k.a. Sea of Japan) soured already difficult relations between the two U.S. allies.  More importantly, South Korea’s economy began to develop increasingly stronger ties with China, a North Korean ally.  For the first time in decades, the U.S. was no longer South Korea’s largest trade partner. Today, the ROK’s trade volume with China stands greater than Seoul’s trade with the U.S. and Japan combined. China is also North Korea’s largest trade partner.  The duality of China’s economic approach is understandable given proximity and trade dynamics of supply and demand.  Whereas the ROK heavily invests in China, China continues to increase its investments in North Korea. China’s hand in the ROK economy is evident everywhere one goes, from the increase of ethnic Korean-Chinese working in ROK restaurants (who publicly list facts about their ingredients as being either from China or the ROK), to the explosion in numbers of ROK students attending Chinese language classes, to China’s major impact on the ROK agricultural sector.  Interestingly, there is little complaint about China’s impact on ROK agriculture, but a decade ago there were major demonstrations in the streets against U.S. agricultural products; all this, while claims of contamination of imported Chinese products have been proven and those of U.S. beef have not.  Acceptance of things Chinese is at its highest point since the Korean War and there is no evident anti-Chinese bias on the South Korean left where anti-US bias remains.  That bias has always been one of the domestic political considerations in the Seoul perspective that seeks more autonomy in its relations with Washington.

As these trade dynamics continue to mature, Seoul’s vision of where its national interests will lie beyond the North Korean threat remains an issue of great debate within the ROK.  But there is a catch-22 in this debate.  The North Korean threat has not gone away and is now a two-edged sword.  Not only do North Korean nukes, missiles, cyber attacks and other asymmetric capabilities present a major risk to Seoul’s security, but, somewhat paradoxically, North Korea’s instability is a threat also, and not one of small consequence.  A collapse of the Kim regime, which would turn the North into a quagmire of famine, loose nukes, and internal civil war, would demand a commitment from the ROK that would bring its economy to its knees and considerably weaken its security posture within the region.  China’s outsized influence on both Pyongyang and Seoul’s economic activity, which will continue to grow, only complicates the security calculus of all parties committed to peace and security in Northeast Asia.

However, the threat goes beyond that.  North Korea’s well-documented proliferation of nuclear and missile technology proves that the Kim regime will sell anything to anyone.  The North Korean proliferation threat to the U.S. is now a major factor in Washington’s calculation of strategic risk to American national security.  In that the Proliferation Security Initiative has not deterred the Kim regime’s continuing development of weapons of mass destruction, the ROK-U.S. alliance may become more important to Washington than ever before.  Bluntly stated, the U.S. now needs forward deployed capabilities to deter North Korean use of nuclear-armed missiles with the capability to target the U.S. mainland and territories.

So how do security interests in Seoul and Washington square with OPCON transition in 2015?  How does America’s sequestration impact U.S. commitment after the transition?  Can the ROK really trust that the U.S. can afford its commitment to the alliance through forward presence?  Can the ROK afford a lessened American presence on the Korean Peninsula?  And considering North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, is the U.S. willing to “sacrifice Los Angeles to save Seoul?

These issues create considerable angst in a nation-state that historically has had to sacrifice some level of security autonomy in order to maintain stability.  At some point, as the North’s nuclear missile program becomes a reality, it will become obvious in the ROK that the U.S. is not willing to incur infinite risk to protect the ROK.  OPCON transition in 2015 may be a moment of pride for the citizenry of South Korea, but it will forever change the way the U.S. approaches the region and will shape the potential for unilateral U.S. military responses when North Korean nuclear missiles are not a potential but a fact.  On whom will Seoul rely at that time?  A far-ranging vision is necessary to avoid war with the North.

This all sounds ugly and unrealistic today, but ten years ago it was unimaginable.  North-South unification is a distant dream.  Does Seoul have a vision for 2030 and beyond?  For starters, who might be its primary security partner, and at what cost in terms of ROK military, political, and economic autonomy?  This is the fundamental question of how to balance future security risks with a vision for ROK domestic and international leadership.  Whoever it is, Seoul must begin to shape that partnership today.  If it is the U.S., OPCON transition in its current conception may not be the best shaping tool.  But if it is China, OPCON transition is the starting point.  China is arguably becoming the most economically and diplomatically influential foreign power on the entire peninsula, in both the North and the South.  It is not difficult to see that an expanded economic influence from China and a decreased military influence from the U.S. could be catastrophic for the ROK should the North initiate a significant provocation or violate the Demilitarized Zone in a substantive way.

OPCON transition within the ROK-U.S. alliance is much more than a mere change in the military lead in the defense of the ROK.  It means the end of a combined warfighting command that has stood as the bedrock of deterrence for three and a half decades. The consequences of this fundamental choice for all regional actors, including Pyongyang and Tokyo, will be unfathomable by today’s limited understanding.  At some point, Seoul’s strategic vision must mitigate strategic risk with an alliance structure not designed by national pride but equipped to meet the evolving security, political, and economic needs—and risk tolerance—of the South Korean people.



Robert M. Collins is a 37-year veteran employee of the U.S. Department of the Army and served 31 years in various positions with the U.S. military in Korea, including several liaison positions with the Republic of Korea military. He is the author of “Marked For Life: Songbun – North Korea’s Social Classification System,” published by the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, Washington, DC.   The author wishes to thank John DeJarnette and Dave Maxwell for their insightful comments.