Previous deals that would have transferred wartime command of South Korean troops to Seoul in 2009 and 2012 fell by the wayside. Now the latest timetable — to transfer control to the South Korean military by December 2015 — has become infected with doubt as South Korean leaders have expressed anxieties again about their ability to command their troops in the face of threats from an increasingly unpredictable North Korea.
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.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Seoul for three days of talks. But he told reporters traveling with him that he doubted that the thorny issue could be resolved during his visit.
“We’re constantly reevaluating each of our roles,” Hagel said. “That does not at all subtract from, or in any way weaken, our commitment.”
In a reminder of how a sudden outbreak of war remains a constant threat here, Hagel toured the demilitarized zone, the 2.5-mile-wide buffer that divides North and South Korea and is the most heavily guarded border in the world.
There are 28,500 U.S. troops permanently stationed in South Korea. That’s a fraction of the size of the South Korean military, which has 640,000 personnel. The South Korean government, however, considers the U.S. military presence a crucial deterrent, and some South Korean officials worry that a lessening of the U.S. role could embolden North Korea.
North Korea’s recent hostile rhetoric and military brinkmanship have added to those concerns. In February, 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.
The question of who would take command of joint U.S.-South Korean forces during another Korean conflict is an unresolved hangover from the Cold War. South Korea has wielded command of its troops during peacetime since 1994 and has steadily upgraded its military capabilities. But the U.S. armed forces remain better equipped to deal with the threat of nuclear, ballistic missile or cyber attacks.