Has no one in Seoul any shame?
South Korea has about forty times the GDP and twice the population of the North. On broad measures of military power, the matchup mimics the relative strengths of the United States and Mexico. The world would react with derision if Washington begged other nations for military assistance. Yet the ROK remains dependent on an American security guarantee and troop deployments.
That’s not all, however. Since the Korean War, the U.S. military retains operational control (OPCON) of both militaries in any renewed conflict. The policy made sense sixty years ago. The ROK was a national wreck, with ill‐trained troops and uncertain officers. An aggressive and disagreeable semi‐dictator continually threatened to start new wars and continue old ones. Both nations benefited from American military control.
That was decades ago, however. The ROK has become a leading industrial state and developed a stable democracy. Seoul has raced past its northern antagonist economically, established relations with its old Cold War nemeses China and Russia, and staked a place among the world’s top powers.
It is fully capable of defending itself. And it certainly is capable of controlling its own troops in any war.
OPCON long has been an irritant to South Korean nationalists. Only in 1994 was peacetime operational control passed back to the ROK. In 2007 the two governments agreed that wartime OPCON would go to Seoul in 2012, allowing a five‐year transition.
The decision was roundly criticized, especially by South Koreans who worried that Washington might feel less inclined to subsidize the ROK’s defense if U.S. troops could end up under Seoul’s command. But America’s military commitment grows out of the mutual‐defense treaty, not OPCON. If South Koreans perceive that commitment to be unsure, it is because the security environment has changed dramatically since the treaty was inked in 1953.
Since foreign policy should retain at least a vague connection to global realities, a change in America’s security guarantee is long overdue. The threats facing the South and the South’s capabilities in responding are far different than they once were. Seoul’s National Intelligence Service reportedly has admitted that even without U.S. support, the South’s military is stronger than that of the North. Continuing dependency makes no sense.
But the relevance of the security guarantee is irrelevant to OPCON. Even if the alliance still made geopolitical sense, American command control would not.
The more substantive yet more curious criticism was that the South Korean military wasn’t ready. It makes one wonder what the ROK armed forces have been up to all these years. Even given five years to prepare for the transfer, the South would still be helpless. What is wrong in Seoul?
In fact, the issue is not capability. Larry Niksch, formerly of the Congressional Research Service, noted at a conference earlier this year: