SEOUL/PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA – Sixty years after the end of the Korean War, the United States and South Korea still cannot agree on who should take charge if another war breaks out with the communist neighbor to the north.
For years, Washington has been trying to persuade the South Korean military to take operational control of its own forces in wartime, ending a six-decade arrangement during which U.S. commanders have retained that authority over South Korean troops. Although supportive in principle, a succession of governments in Seoul has repeatedly delayed the command transfer, reinforcing doubts about whether the South Korean military is capable of operating without U.S. leadership.
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.
South Korean officials began a public campaign this summer for another delay beyond 2015 but have not specified a new date. U.S. officials have not agreed to any changes so far. Some have said they are becoming frustrated with South Korea’s reluctance to take charge of its own defense.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Seoul over the weekend for three days of talks. But he told reporters traveling with him that he doubts that the thorny issue can be resolved during his visit.
“We’re constantly re-evaluating 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 there, Hagel on Monday toured the demilitarized zone, the 4-km-wide buffer that divides North and South Korea and is the most heavily guarded border in the world.
After watching a live-fire exercise near the border, Hagel toured the DMZ — once described by former U.S. President Bill Clinton as the “scariest place on Earth” — with his South Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin.
“This is probably the only place in the world where we have always a risk of confrontation, where two sides are looking clearly and directly at each other,” he told reporters at the Panmunjom truce village where the Korean War armistice was signed.
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, the North conducted a nuclear test, two months after testing a long-range ballistic missile that could potentially strike the western U.S. Memories are also fresh there of a March 2010 incident in which North Korea torpedoed a South Korean Navy vessel, killing 46 sailors.
The question of who will 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.
In May, South Korea first floated the possibility of keeping its forces under U.S. wartime command beyond 2015. Since then, Seoul has become more vocal.
In August, Kim raised the issue with Hagel during a meeting in Brunei. Afterward, Kim told the South Korean parliament that there was “a consensus” in his government that sticking with the December 2015 deadline was no longer “appropriate,” according to the state-run Yonhap news agency. But he acknowledged that the Americans didn’t necessarily agree.
Hagel met later Monday with President Park Geun-hye.
Although the Obama administration is eager for South Korea to take permanent command of its own forces, U.S. officials do not want to leave the impression that handing over control might weaken the U.S. commitment to the region. The Pentagon has said it has no plans to scale back its troop presence in Korea. U.S. forces on the peninsula will remain under American command.
Back in Washington, however, some members of Congress have grown tired of South Korea’s reluctance to take charge of its own defense, especially at a time of U.S. budget constraints.
“I believe it’s important that we see to it that the primary responsibility for defending South Korea during a time of war lies with South Korea,” Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said July 30 during a confirmation for the incoming commander of U.S. forces in Korea, army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti. “It is a sovereign nation, and sovereign nations should be responsible for their own national defense in time of war.”
During his confirmation hearing, Scaparrotti said that he agrees with the December 2015 timetable and that he will “do everything possible to ensure that we stay on track.”
But he left some wiggle room. In written responses to the Senate panel, Scaparrotti said the transfer of wartime command will be “conditions driven” and has to be “executed in a manner that does not accept any unnecessary risk to the national security” of South Korea.