Big changes are afoot in the military alliance between the United States and South Korea. The two governments have agreed to transfer operational control of the South Korean military in the event of a war to a South Korean general. South Koreans are deeply divided about the wisdom of this move.

Some see control of their own forces as a basic sovereign prerequisite. Others believe their military is not prepared, and that the pursuit of “independence” in operations will undermine national defense. Implicit in the debate is the fear that the U.S. is weakening its commitment to South Korea’s defense. Both governments — and that of Japan — need to understand the implications of this change and make sure they don’t introduce uncertainty and insecurity into Northeast Asia.

South Korea originally delegated command and control of its armed forces to the United Nations Command in July 1950 — which was headed by a U.S. general — during the Korean War. After Seoul and Washington signed a mutual defense treaty at the war’s end in 1954, operational control was given to the commander of U.S. Forces in Korea. This occurred again in 1978 when the U.S. contemplated withdrawing its forces from the Korean Peninsula. On each occasion, the U.S. and South Korea became more closely bound to enhance the effectiveness of their forces, and to ensure that North Korea was deterred from attacking the South.

In the 50 years since the Korean War, South Korea has become a vibrant democracy and an economic powerhouse. While the overwhelming majority of South Koreans still approve of and support the alliance with the U.S., a growing number chafe at its provisions. Especially irritating are the subordination of South Korea’s 650,000 troops to a U.S. commander and allowing the U.S. to set the terms of engagement during a conflict. More Koreans believe their military should play the leading role in a war and the U.S. should provide support.

Negotiations over the transfer of control actually began under a conservative government some 16 years ago. Control of South Korean forces in peacetime was transferred to Seoul back in 1994. Two events have pushed Washington and Seoul to accelerate discussions over wartime command and control: the installation of a center-left government in Seoul in 2002 and the rethinking of the U.S. defense posture that followed the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The two governments have since agreed on the transfer, which is expected to be confirmed at the ROK-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting in October. No date for the transfer has been set. Reportedly, Washington originally proposed 2008, while Seoul prefers a slower process that terminates in 2012. A compromise of 2009 is expected.

In the supercharged political atmosphere in Seoul, this decision is extremely controversial. A coalition of conservatives that includes the opposition Grand National Party and its supporters, as well as retired military officers, is adamantly opposed to the move and wants to stop the discussions. A lawmaker has been dispatched to the U.S. to try to convince the U.S. to stop the move. They argue that South Korea is not prepared to take the lead in war, that the move will result in U.S. withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula and the end of the alliance, and that it will embolden North Korea to attack.

The dire predictions seem overwrought. South Korea has a powerful military and it makes sense for Seoul to lead the defense of the country. South Korean reluctance to step in when it could do more would do the most damage to the alliance with the U.S. Some say the U.S. presence itself has prevented Seoul from assuming its rightful role by increasing dependence on the U.S.

The real danger is of a precipitous withdrawal that is driven by political concerns rather than security needs. Both governments have political agendas: South Korea is increasingly confident and nationalist, and seeks a more equitable partnership with the U.S., while Washington is militarily overstretched and wants to better structure its military to respond to new threats and to better use new capabilities and doctrines. Those two interests can be mutually supporting, and a well planned transition will permit both countries to achieve their objectives and improve their partnership without compromising on security or threatening their alliance.

While it is not much discussed, Japan is involved as well. This country plays a vital role in the defense of South Korea through its alliance with the U.S. and through the U.N. Command. Tokyo must be kept informed of developments as Seoul and Washington work through the changes in their alliance. All three governments must ensure that the two U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea enhance peace, security and stability in Northeast Asia — and not jeopardize them.

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