WASHINGTON: For six decades, Americans have been in charge of the joint US-Korean headquarters that would control both countries’ forces in the event of war. The South Koreans were supposed to take over the Combined Forces Command in 2015, but now Seoul is getting cold feet about ending the Cold War arrangement – and Korea’s new ambassador to the United States is politely evasive about whether the deadline will hold.
“From the very beginning, we have been saying that is going to be done by 2015, but it is going to be done through a very rigorous assessment of the conditions…. including the global strategic situation,” said Amb. Ahn Ho-young, when I ambushed him coming out of a speech on Friday, just a day after he formally presented his credentials to President Obama. (Incidentally, “from the very beginning” is not entirely true: South Korea was originally supposed to take command in 2012, but Seoul got a three-year extension after provocations by Pyongyang.) “So we are doing our job,” he said. “Let us see.”
So what odds would His Excellency give on the handover happening on time? 25 percent? 75 percent? 50-50? Ho-young smiled: “As a mere ambassador, it would be too tough a question to answer.”
Given North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, missile tests, and inflammatory rhetoric, it’s no wonder Seoul is nervous about taking full command. “The first Korean war, the US ran it,” said Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, at the 60th anniversary event the ambassador had just addressed. (The war ended in an armistice — there was never a peace treaty — on July 27, 1953; both President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will speak at the Korean War Memorial on Saturday). Some skeptics have questioned whether South Korea’s command-and-control capabilities have caught up sufficiently to America’s and that is a crucial question, Bandow said, but “a certain amount of it is simply confidence: This is an extraordinary amount of responsibility in wartime.”
“The reason it’s coming up is, it is a political issue in Seoul; it is a psychological issue to some extent,” agreed Scott Snyder, head of the US-Korea program at the Council on Foreign Relations. That said, Snyder went on, “this recent report that South Korea might be examining this again is premature.”
“I think that Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin] Dempsey yesterday in his hearing indicated very clearly that this process [is] examining whether or not Korea is going to be ready to do this,” Snyder said. “It makes sense to let that process go forward and see if any red flags come up based on Koreans’ actual capabilities.”
Certainly, many Americans would like to see South Korea take full responsibility for its own defense. “There’s something embarrassing about a country that has to outsource the command of its armed forces in wartime to an ally,” said Bandow, who has argued it is in America’s interest to end the 60-year-old alliance.
“We should look at rather phasing out the relationship,” he told the audience at Cato. “The good news for South Korea is it’s well capable of defending itself.” South Korea’s army has more than a half-million soldiers under arms. Its navy has advanced Aegis destroyers being upgraded to shoot down incoming Northern missiles. Its air force includes Lockheed Martin’s classic F-16 and the latest Boeing-built F-15K jet fighters, although a prospective purchase of Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be delayed for fiscal reasons.
Bandow went so far to argue Seoul should strongly consider developing longer-range missiles – currently prohibited by treaty – and even nuclear weapons. “The current non-proliferation situation in northeast Asia is kind of the equivalent of gun control…only the bad guys have guns,” Bandow said, in the gleefully provocative tone often taken by libertarians. Why should South Korea – or Japan, or Taiwan – have to count on the US to commit its nuclear forces on their behalf? Why should the US have to expose its cities to retaliation to protect its allies? “I’m not sure I want to risk Los Angeles,” he said. “I like Los Angeles.”
The normal argument against our East Asian allies going nuclear is that it would destabilize the region. China dislikes having nuclear-armed US forces in its backyard, but it distrusts its neighbors even more. (In fact, a dirty secret of the US-Korean alliance is that its original purpose was as much to restrain Seoul as to protect it). Bandow dismissed such concerns. “Why on earth are we worried about upsetting China? They’re not doing a lot to [restrain] the North,” he said. “Upset them!” Only then, he argued, will the People’s Republic realize that it has to rein in the erratic North Koreans before they get China into nuclear-tipped trouble.
“I have a slightly different view from Doug,” Snyder said dryly. (“Really?” Bandow said, chuckling). “As we think about managing China’s rise…I would prefer more subtlety.”
That said, Snyder acknowledged, China has not been particularly helpful on the peninsula. South Korea has cultivated the People’s Republic for decades, even severing ties with Taiwan to restore diplomatic relations with the mainland, but China has not reciprocated by reining in North Korea. “South Korea still hasn’t got what it wants from the relationship in a strategic sense,” he said. “China is still playing hard to get.”
It is Beijing’s ever-increasing might that both Washington and Seoul must consider as they reevaluate their 60-year-old alliance, not just the nuclear-armed mental asylum in Pyongyang. Both sides have an interest in stabilizing the peninsula. After all, in the Korean War, US and Chinese troops fought and killed each other by the tens of thousands; in the near future, a North Korean collapse could send US and Chinese forces racing to secure nuclear sites in another literally explosive situation. In the big picture of the Pacific, North Korea is a nasty little serpent, but China is the dragon.