This is a reprint of an essay first published by the Lowy Institute a week ago.
The reversion of OPCON – operational wartime control of the South Korean military – to South Korea is finally over. After 10 years of endless meetings, papers, op-eds, and power-points, everyone seems to have realized it was a basically a huge mistake (which it was). The US and Korea recently agreed to push it off the 2020s, which is another way of saying it will probably never happen.
The irony is that almost as soon as reversion was agreed to last decade, the South Koreans got cold feet and tried to have it changed back. No one seems to have thought that closing down the Combined Forces Command would mean that Korea would have to do a lot more for its own defense and stop free-riding so much. Once that reality hit by the end of President Roh’s term, ‘US imperialism’ didn’t look so bad after all: it meant Seoul could continue to woefully under-invest in defense. So here we are at last, back to where we started from. And honestly, it is all for the best – if the US is going to stay here.
The essay follows the jump.
Late last month, the US and South Korea agreed to delay the issue of who would control the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula. In the argot of Korean security, this is known as the reversion of ‘OPCON,’ or operational control. The debate on this has raged a decade. It now appears over; indefinite extensions mean it is probably no longer a meaningful option.
Since the war in the 1950s, the US had maintained control over the entire South Korean military. US Forces Korea (USFK) were integrated with ROK forces into a Combined Forces Command (CFC). CFC was in turned integrated into the United Nations Command (UNC). All three commands are headed by the same person – a four-star US general. The current commander is Curtis Scaparotti. This command structure is unique. Nowhere else does a US commander operate under multiple jurisdictions like this – not in Japan or NATO. (A nice review of this is here.)
Unfortunately, this structure also implicated the US military in Korea’s earlier dictatorships. When leftist critics of the US position in Korea argue that the US ‘runs’ Korean foreign policy or that Washington is responsible for various Korean dictatorial repressions in the past – most notably in Kwangju – this is usually what they mean. US defenders have argued that if dictators like Park Chung-Hee or Chun Doo-Hwan had had full control of the South Korean military, the repressions would have been much worse.
Thankfully, as the ROK matured into a democracy, it was increasingly capable of governing its own internal affairs without recourse to authoritarianism. In this environment, peacetime OPCON was reverted in 1994. As hostilities with North Korea have not recommenced since then, this means that the South Korean civilian government effectively exercises full-time independent control over the South Korean military. Coupled with an independent defense budget (that often focuses on flashy weapons systems USFK would not recommend) and civilian leadership of the Ministry of National Defense (MND), South Korea acts increasingly on its own in defense matters. At the same time, US ground totals in Korea have steadily shrunk from a wartime high of nearly 1 million to the current 28,500. In short, the bulk of the defense burden and policy choices behind it increasingly fall on Seoul. This is progress, insofar as the Korean division is a Korean affair, from which meddling outsiders (read: China) should be excluded.
In the early 2000s, the remaining joint structure came under criticism from the Korean left. In 1998, Korea’s first liberal president, Kim Dae Jung, took office. Kim is most famous for launching the Sunshine Policy. Although Korean voters eventually turned on it as a failure, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was widely seen as a breakthrough. Kim won the 2000 Nobel Prize, and his successor, also a liberal, Roo Moo Hyun, continued the Sunshine Policy. He also ran an aggressively anti-American campaign in 2002.
In this environment, CFC and US ‘OPCON’ of the wartime ROK military was understood as an unnecessary provocation of North Korea and an infringement of South Korean sovereignty. A long-standing goal of North Korea has been the reduction, if not complete withdrawal, of USFK. A staple Northern claim is that it is USFK that divides the peninsula and has made South Korea the ‘Yankee Colony.’ As I have argued elsewhere, while this may seem propagandistic to western observers, it is surprisingly resonant in South Korea. Anti-Americanism in South Korea is entrenched, particularly in parties of the left and in the film industry. It tends to come in waves, mostly recently in the beef protests of 2008, and Korean liberal politicians, such as Roh, routinely exploit it.
Roh sought a final ‘peace regime’ with the North. The two Koreas are still legally at war. The current peace is actually a 61 year armistice. One informal concession was to be the elimination of CFC and a scaling back of USFK’s role in South Korean security. Military OPCON reversion served a domestic purpose too – it buttressed the claim of Roh, and the left generally, that South Korea was independent of the Americans. It played to traditional Korean prejudices that Korea has been manipulated by covetous foreigners (the Chinese, Mongols, Japanese, Americans); an old Korean aphorism goes that ‘Korea is a shrimp among whales.’ All Koreans, North and South, could agree that the Yankees were obstructing Korean reconciliation. At the high point of the Sunshine Policy, when North and South Korea seemed closer than at any time since the war, directing Korean nationalism toward the Americans as blocking better relations was a masterstroke. In 2006, Seoul and Washington agreed to OPCON reversion by 2012.
The history since then is a curious case of unintended consequences that ended in the current arrangement which delays OPCON until 2020 at the earliest. Almost immediately Seoul had buyer’s remorse, while the Americans were increasingly happy to be rid of the burden. Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense at the time, disliked Roh intensely and actually welcomed the greater US flexibility OPCON reversion would permit. In the mid-2000s, the US security establishment was pre-occupied with the war on terrorism; officials, including Rumsfeld himself, started speaking of it as a ‘long war.’ If the US was going to be fighting terrorism for decades in failed states in the greater Middle East, wasn’t it time for mature, wealthy democracies like South Korea to carry their own weight more?
On the Korea side, the burden of OPCON also hit home. As USFK shrank, CFC came into question, and the US focused increasingly on Islamic terrorism, South Korea would need to spend more on defense (a lot more actually) and significantly improve the professionalism of both its conscript force and officer corps. For a military long-accustomed to (coddled by, arguably) the US guarantee, this was a major challenge, and OPCON reversion has been repeatedly delayed, because the South Koreans simply are not ready.
South Korean conservatives turned against the deal almost immediately, calling for OPCON delays. As the Sunshine Policy ran aground on persistent North Korean intransigence, South Korean voters turned against it by electing the very hawkish, pro-American Lee Myung Bak. Lee, like the electorate, had come by the mid-2000s to the conclusion that North Korea was not actually changing under the Sunshine Policy, but was simply milking it as a permanent subsidy. North Korea responded in 2010 by sinking a South Korean destroyer and shelling an island, killing fifty people.
Since then OPCON reversion has been delayed repeatedly, taking us to the current arrangement. It seems safe to say at this point, that the long, ten-year soap-opera of OPCON reversion is over. A delay to the 2020s is effectively indefinite, which in turn means it almost certainly will not happen. CFC/USFK is pretty much permanent now.