Cold War continues as U.S. keeps wartime command over S. Korean forces


President Obama speaks as South Korean President Park Geun-hye looks on in a joint news conference at the Blue House on  April 25 in Seoul, South Korea. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

During the first two legs of his Asia tour, at stops in Japan and South Korea, President Obama paid tribute to those who died in the tragic Sewol ferry disaster, sought to offer support to Asian allies in the face of external threats (read: North Korea and, to a lesser extent, China) and found time to kick a soccer ball around with a robot.

But somewhat lost in the headlines was another interesting wrinkle: Following meetings in Seoul, it emerged that Washington was possibly going to postpone its planned handover of wartime command of South Korea's forces, which had been slated for 2015.

Wait, you say. The U.S. commands the South Korean military? Yes and no.

Since 1994, South Korea has retained peacetime control over its armed forces. But in the event of conflict breaking out, most probably with neighboring pariah state and regional irritant North Korea, the U.S. would assume "operational control" — known as OPCON in military jargon — over the South's armed forces. It's a relic of the uneasy armistice that ended the Korean War six decades ago and has led to a permanent U.S. troop presence on the peninsula ever since (some 28,500 soldiers). If the North attacks, the U.S. must take the lead to battle its Cold War foe.

The new delay in the proposed handover is largely a result of South Korean skittishness — as my colleague Craig Whitlock reported last September — in the face of the North's increasingly erratic, bellicose behavior under its young leader Kim Jong Un. While the South Korean army is more than a match for that of the North, the U.S. military is better equipped to deal with an enemy that possesses the nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities North Korea is believed to have in its arsenal. Here's Whitlock:

South Korean officials began a public campaign this summer for a delay beyond 2015 but haven't specified a new date. U.S. officials have not agreed to any changes. Some have said they are becoming frustrated with South Korea’s reluctance to take charge of its own defense ...

In February [2013], North Korea conducted a nuclear test, two months after testing a long-range ballistic missile that could strike the western United States. Memories are also fresh here of a March 2010 incident in which North Korea torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors.

Responding to South Korean angst, felt most keenly by the conservatives currently in power in Seoul, Obama offered assurances that the U.S. would perhaps not be transferring its wartime command so soon. "Given the evolving security environment in the region, including the enduring North Korean nuclear missile threat, we can reconsider the 2015 timeline," said Obama at a news conference alongside South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

Of course, not all South Koreans want the U.S. to retain these wartime powers. In most other circumstances, no sovereign nation would cede such authority to another state. Robert E. Kelly, assistant professor of international relations at Pusan National University  in South Korea, offers a good explanation of the politics of OPCON here. The first handover, planned for 2012, had been demanded by a progressive government in Seoul in 2006. Subsequent conservative administrations now keep pushing back the date. Kelly outlines the contours of the domestic debate in South Korea:

[U.S. wartime command] smacks of neocolonialism and external control. The Korean left in particular has long been uncomfortable with the U.S. presence. Like many Western European leftist parties during the Cold War, the South Korean left is deeply divided over how to approach the communists. A minority could be fairly described as “pro-Pyongyang”... More generally, there is some confused sympathy for the North’s goals and a strong willingness to blame the Americans for making North Korea so paranoid and awful. Where conservatives tend to see a megalomaniacal, out-of-control monarchy, progressives tend to see North Korea pushed into harshness by U.S. imperialism. Hence a reversion of OPCON could reduce tensions by reducing the Northern perception that the U.S. is out to get it.

One can imagine that many in the U.S. would welcome not having to shoulder such a burden on the other side of the planet. But even as American troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan later this year, the frozen, intractable Korean conflict grinds on.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a Senior Editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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