Reshaping the South Korea-US alliance

A growing number of pro-American foreign and defense policy pundits in Seoul are tending to be too optimistic over the US-South Korean defense relationship, as if the relationship couldn't be better. But trouble could be looming.

The alliance cannot endure another several decades in its current form. A new form of security needs to be created as soon as possible, working for the defense and expansion of a more stable order in Northeast Asia. That new security forum, of course, must deal with China and North Korea logically in their place. One of the Lee government's central strategic tasks is to set up detailed and strategic plans toward the current Korea-US alliance and to forge a more balanced order in the region. A taster's choice moment for the alliance is over.

At the heart of the current concern is so-called "Opcon" – operational control of Republic of Korea forces in the event of resumption of hostilities on the Korean peninsula. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak values highly the importance of the ROK-US alliance, particularly in contrast to the situation under the late President Roh Moo-hyun, who presided over the most strained relationship in recent memory between Seoul and Washington in terms of the so-called 'equal partnership.' It was Roh who called for taking back troop control authority from the United States, to build Korea's indigenous defense capability

South Korea, almost completely overrun by the North in 1950, voluntarily handed over operational control to the United Nations Command at the outbreak of the Korean War. Command authority ultimately was transferred from the UN to the US-South Korea Combined Forces Command. And, although Seoul took over peacetime control of its own forces 11 years ago, wartime command control remains in the hands of an apparently reluctant US, which would like to get rid of it.

With the Americans having now agreed to hand back control at Roh's insistence, South Korea under Lee has started having second thoughts. Conservatives are concerned that the command changes could presage a US move to reduce the American security commitment on the peninsula, an eventuality that could give North Korean adventurism new opportunities and tip the security balance at a time of growing Chinese power.

Some people point out that a series of diplomatic conflicts between the US and Japan over military bases and between the US and China over arms sales to Taiwan, not to mention the Google cyber security issue in China, underlines South Korea as Washington's solid and reliable friend in the region.

Far beyond the troublesome North Korean nuclear issues, and beyond the question of the alliance, however, lies a still more fundamental issue: what exactly is the nature of the military alliance facing North Korea as a nuclear state and how would American power be projected if necessary?

As soon as Lee took office in 2008, he started seeking to convince his US counterparts-- George W Bush included prior to Obama's ascendancy-- how crucial the ROK-U.S. alliance should be to regional stability in Northeast Asia, not only because of North Korea's adventurism but because the rise of China is becoming an unavoidable challenge to American hegemony in the region. In short, the conservative president at least acknowledges that America's role should be bigger than that of China in the course of making an eventual Korean unification happen.

It is thus no wonder that from an alliance perspective of the conservatives, Obama's easy-to-remember comments about South Korea's economic and educational achievements can be regarded as perhaps more promising than they actually are to bolster conservatives' concerns in favor of delaying the transfer of wartime operational control.

On cue, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young reportedly said on Feb. 24 that "the US-led defense scheme will remain further, given the North Korean nuclear and missile threat." The four-star general-turned-minister also insinuated that the government might renegotiate with the US over the transition of operational control that Seoul and Washington agreed in 2007. Roh must be turning in his grave. In terms of substance, yet some of what Kim had to say was unsurprising. It is correct that the Lee government's possible volte-face must give away many things, as the minister remarked.

The overarching question is whether operational control of South Korean troops during wartime should indeed pass from the US to Korean commanders. Today, many military experts embrace a different view of South Korea's self-defense capability against the communist North, but the reality is that the transition of wartime operational control is entirely based on US military strategy that South Korea-based US troops could be temporarily pulled out of the peninsula at any time in consideration of US national interests.

Washington may feel it has a winning hand in the bargaining as operational control is considered more important to South Korea than to the US. As the US has already confirmed publicly several times that the controversial authority would not be altered, it may be quietly scoffing at Seoul's goal. It is clear that America cannot forever bankroll the security of South Korea. South Korean military policy-makers should examine the American military strategies as they are, not as they want them to be. That will be a reality of the 21st century between the two countries.

In the broadest sense, most government leaders, regardless of whether they want to obtain wartime operational control as scheduled, share the same goals in South Korea. At the same time, each wants South Korea's defense capabilities to remain independent and is watching cautiously as North Korea, a de facto nuclear state, seeks direct negotiations with the US over the denuclearization of the communist regime that would fundamentally reshape the political geography of the peninsula.

Each is also worried about insecurity, as the US and Japan are much concerned about the whereabouts of the nuclear weapons in North Korea, as well as the possibility that China could be the fastest to cross into its neighbor state in case a serious confrontation takes place. China says that the sanctions the US is seeking in themselves are not an end as the US and other member states of the six-party talks try to harness support for them. As the US's ultimate likely successor for dominion in Asia, China is getting tougher and tougher on the world stage.

Inevitably, South Korea is paying close attention to what many China analysts consider to be newfound Chinese activism across the globe. Expanding Chinese influence in North Korea would be especially alarming to policy decision-makers in Washington, given that Beijing and Pyongyang share a long and robust blood bondage. US estimates are that China lost 400,000 dead defending North Korea. That said, China has always considered North Korea to be its backyard, albeit not being a kind of Taiwan, the self-governing island that China views as a 'renegade province.' Beijing regards Pyongyang, no matter how weak, as an essential buffer against the west on its eastern flank.

From America's perspective, the Korean peninsula's geopolitical significance can be in no way ignored, because North Korea has already gone nuclear. Likewise, the peninsula has emerged as a crucial site where America's global strategies could potentially be embarrassed on North Korea's foolhardy nuclear weapons program.

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.