My July Diplomat Essay: The Korean ‘OPCON’ Soap Opera Rolls on – Hint: just drop it

Thank you for waiting out my summer break. I need summers to get some writing done, but inevitably I didn’t get nearly what I needed to wrapped up. Should you ever hear that argument that college professors slack, because we only teach 2/2 or 3/3, you ought to try writing for these journals. Just read this. That is why we don’t teach 30 hours a week. 

But I am still writing for The Diplomat, a gig I really enjoy. Here is my piece from August on the endless soap opera of the transfer of wartime operational control (‘OPCON’) from the US to the Republic of Korea. (The pic is the US SecDef and SK DefMin.) Why the RoK would even want OPCON back, before unification, is beyond me. It’s a perfect opportunity to buckpass to the superpower security guarantor. And in fact, that is sorta the way the Korean debate is going; they increasingly don’t want it back. Also, it seems pretty clear now that the Koreans aren’t really ready. Too many officers have been playing golf or whatever instead of getting ROKA specs and procedures up to snuff. Anyway, my own sense is to just drop it, because the US and RoK are just going to re-build a version of CFC (Combined Forces Command) that does all the same stuff but is just a little less ‘joint.’ I don’t really see the point then in ending OPCON. If you’re a real mil-tech expert, please tell me in the comments why a new ‘CFC light’ is better than the current arrangement? 

The essay starts after the jump.


“The continuing soap opera over the US ‘OPCON’ in South Korea – US operational control of the Southern military in a shooting war (presumably with the North) – rolls on. The South Korean government has recently requested another push-back of the date when the South Korea would re-assume OPCON from the Americans. This is the second such request, raising the obvious question of whether this should go forward at all. Does it make sense to replace a joint structure with something less joint, when it would still need to function as such in a conflict? Especially now that North Korea is a confirmed nuclear power and just provoked the worst war crisis since 1950? (If you have never heard of this issue and do not know the debate, here is a pretty good place to start).

Back in 2006, the South Korean government first insisted on the reversion of OPCON by 2012; the US agreed. As a sovereign state, the Republic of Korea is fully entitled to such choices, and the decision was marketed as such by the South Korea left, which held the presidency at the time. Korea’s sovereignty was being restored; America’s semi-imperial dominance was being curtailed, and so on. The national security ramifications were generally glossed over; instead the government played to the nationalist Korean voters and latent anti-Americanism (the beef protests would break shortly afterwards). And at the time, during the Sunshine Policy, North Korea seemed reasonably well-behaved.

The decision was immediately controversial. The move, by Roh Moo Hyun, the most left-wing (or ‘progressive,’ which is the preferred term in Korea) president in the history of the Republic, provoked conservatives who saw it as a weakening of the US defense commitment. And indeed, Donald Rumsfeld did in fact embrace the deal as a way to manage US commitments at a time when the war on terror was still called the ‘long war’ and the ‘pivot’ to Asia was nowhere in sight. Roh’s successor, Lee Myung Bak, was content to request a delay, and it is not entirely surprising that Korea’s second conservative administration since 2006 requested a second delay.

The current US commitment to South Korean defense includes the wartime operational control (OPCON) of the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA). The military utility is fairly obvious: it provides unified command in wartime. Further, the more the US is vested with command responsibilities, the more likely the US is to say in Korea altogether. Former President Jimmy Carter sought to remove US Forces in Korea (USFK) altogether, and today the military necessity of retaining US forces in Korea is much diminished. One widespread school of thought in Korean studies is that the post-Cold War US presence in Korea is now the strongest ideological prop for the North’s continuing dictatorship, and that a US departure would accelerate unification. In the US, some rising voices, such as Ron Paul and the Cato Institute, have argued for years that a post-Cold War presence in Korea is unnecessary. Post-Iraq, perceptions that America is overstretched have risen, and Korea could clearly spend a great deal more on defense than it does. Hence, holding OPCON has always been a powerful Korean enticement to keep a US military presence despite geopolitical shifts that might encourage withdrawal.

But politically in South Korea, this has always meet with some distaste. It smacks of neocolonialism and external control. The Korean left particularly has been uncomfortable with the US presence for a long time. 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,’ although not nearly as many as mccarthyite Southern conservatives would have you believe. 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, progressive tend to see North Korea pushed into harshness by US imperialism. Hence a reversion of OPCON could reduce tension by reducing the Northern perception that the US is out to get it.

As was the case in cold war Europe, there is lingering admiration for socialism even if its ‘real existing’ version is awful and corrupted. And there is some pride that North Korea is an independent Korean state, not as globalized and Americanized as the South, standing tall against the Americans, Chinese and the Japanese. In short, the South Korean left is fairly ambiguous on whether the US or NK presents a greater threat to South Korea, and the OPCON reversion plays to both that anti-Americanism and ambiguity in dealing with the North

Previously, during the Cold War, the US retained control of the ROKA in peacetime as well. So long as the USSR existed, it was generally understood that North Korea was a continuing invasion threat. Also, Korea was a military dictatorship until the 1990s. That military was tightly bound in training and socialization to the US presence. So there was little resistance in traditional national security circles. Curiously then, it is the left in Korea that is more nationalist – both anti-American and mildly pro-North – while the right is ‘internationalist’ – pro-alliance and virulently anti-communist.

As these contending political forces ebb and flow in Korean political life, attitudes toward the OPCON transfer have shifted all over the place. In my own experience on the conference circuit and teaching undergraduates in Korea, I have seen little sympathy for the transfer and a fair amount of anxiety. But that concern is more of the free-rider than anti-communist variant. The US presence is a shield that allows Seoul to spend a lot less on defense than it otherwise would and that is widely understood. Similarly, conscription terms in South Korea would almost certainly be longer without USFK. It is well-known that South Korean interest in unification is fading and that there is great fear for the costs. Insofar as the OPCON transfer would force more of the load onto South Korea, that is the primary concern I have seen – not fear of North Korean attack or US imperialism. In this way – to push the Koreans to take their own defense more seriously – the transfer might be a good idea.

On the other hand finally, are the coordination costs. Today, US and Southern commands are integrated into a ‘Combined Forces Command.’ The OPCON transfer would abolish CFC and be replaced by “independent, parallel national commands” acting in close liaison. This works elsewhere, in NATO and Japan, for example, but none of those commands seriously envision a massive ground war in traditional fashion, potentially involving hundreds of thousands of casualties. This does seem a questionable choice on strictly security grounds, regardless of the (rather bogus and manipulative) ‘neocolonial’ claim. Why abolish CFC/OPCON if it will only be replace it with something less organized and less unified?”

3 thoughts on “My July Diplomat Essay: The Korean ‘OPCON’ Soap Opera Rolls on – Hint: just drop it

  1. Great article! Aside from your main argument, the 5th and 6th paragraphs do a great and balanced job, I think, succinctly describing the (both flawed and mis-represented/maligned) character of the Korean left which few outside of Korea have much awareness or understanding of.


  2. 1) I think it all comes down to something that Larry Bond noted in his novel Red Phoenix all those years back:

    The South Koreans, understandably, were increasingly unhappy with a chain of command that put an American general with forty thousand troops in charge of the entire six-hundred-thousand-man South Korean military.
    Bond , Larry; Larkin, Patrick (2012-07-15). Red Phoenix (Kindle Locations 1757-1758). . Kindle Edition.

    The numbers have changed but the essence has remained.

    2) Are you sure the SKs don’t “want” OPCON back? They might admit they are not ready, that the US has a superior ISR network or combat experience or other rational, realistic grounds to accept US OPCON as a pragmatic choice. But if they don’t want it back, they must lack all pride. Frankly, I’ll consider that last point much more of a concern than any technical deficiencies they might have.

    3) I must frankly admit some skepticism of the claim that transfer of OPCON will have much effect on Americans willingness to stay. If the “usual rule” is that the overall commander of a coalition is determined by the relative size of the forces each party brings to the table, at least by some metrics the US is already not doing that and still retaining its role.

    When push comes to shove, the US will decide what to do based on its interests and capabilities. If she decides helping South Korea is a good idea, she will. If she doesn’t to the point where she’s willing to take a credibility hit, leaving OPCON in US hands just means they would use the control rights to order the South Koreans to hold the airports while their troops pile onto the cargo aircraft coming to take them out (it is not like the United States has never abandoned an ally to the Communists…)


  3. Pingback: My Lowy Debate on whether the US should Retrench from South Korea, part 2: No | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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