As the US commander in Korea requests reinforcements against the Northern threat and the Chinese stage one of their regular river-crossing exercises along the Yalu, conservatives in South Korea are campaigning to keep the joint US-Korean military headquarters that is currently slated to be dissolved in 2015.
One of Korea’s most prominent newspapers, the right-leaning Chosun Ilbo, reported yesterday that Gen. James Thurman, commander of US Forces Korea, has proposed retaining the Combined Forces Command, the joint headquarters that controls over 600,000 of both countries’ troops on the peninsula. As part of current plans to give Seoul full “operational control” over its own forces in 2015 — originally scheduled for this year but delayed at Seoul’s request — the CFC is supposed to break up into separate US and Korean organizations at separate locations.
Such a split would complicate coordination in wartime and require more money to stand up and maintain. In past negotiations, Seoul wanted to keep the integrated single headquarters and simply change who’s in charge, reversing the current arrangement of a US commander with a Korean deputy to have a Korean command with a US deputy, but the Bush Administration rejected the idea of having a foreign officer command American forces. Now, as the Obama administration ups the strategic emphasis on Asia, the Chosun Ilbo is reporting, the US has changed its mind.
Is this for real? Another paper, the Korea Herald, reported that both the Korean Defense Ministry and US Forces Korea denied Thurman had made such a proposal. A Pentagon spokesperson would only tell Breaking Defense that “As a matter of policy, we do not discuss operational planning. We will continue to work through planning the transfer to a Republic of Korea-led combined defense and remain on track and committed to the Strategic Alliance 2015 milestones.” But the Chosun Ilbo stands by the story and in fact published an op-ed today endorsing the (alleged) proposal as “worth considering.” So what’s really going on here?
“I do think someone in the ROK [Republic of (South) Korea] government is releasing trial balloons here,” wrote David Maxwell, a recently retired Army Special Forces colonel with extensive experience in Korea, in an email. “I also think the Chosun Ilbo is probably speaking for many of the former ROK General Officers and conservative old guard.”
It’s worth noting that the original Chosun Ilbo piece only cited an anonymous Korean “government source,” not Thurman himself or even an anonymous American. It’s also worth noting the Chosun Ilbo is South Korea’s most prominent conservative paper — conservative in this context meaning wary of the North and supportive of a US presence — to the point that Pyongyang has threatened to attack the paper’s offices. And in any country, when a news organization wants to advance a political agenda, one classic trick is to get a friendly source to say something about it, report that comment as news, and then use this “news” story as justification to weigh in with an op-ed.
So whatever Gen. Thurman himself may or may not have said — and we’ll never know for sure — it’s clear that powerful political forces in South Korea want to keep the combined US-Korean headquarters around. Given the abiding danger from the North, it’s hard to blame them.