South Koreans Ask U.S. to Reconsider Timing of Military Handoff by Tom Coyner

Since 1978, the Combined Forces Command (CFC) has been accountable to a joint military committee that gets its authority from both U.S. and South Korean national command authorities.

The Korean units assigned to the CFC are designated by the Korean side and can be withdrawn by South Korea at any time simply by notification. The CFC commander cannot refuse such notification. All he can do is point out the impact it may have on the performance of his mission.

These points have not been well understood by most Koreans or most Americans. Neither have they been well explained. When U.S. officials stated their position publicly in 1980, they were stymied by martial law and censorship from Korea. Subsequently there was little effort to set the record straight because of the priority accorded to stability.

In other words, despite a military technological gap, the relationship between the two sides has been much more equal than is publicly imagined. But to be fair, as of today, the U.S. maintains a four-star general command CFC and two-star generals—C3 (operations and training, the primary war-fighting team) and C5 (plans, policy and strategy)—to head up the most important staff sections, with a Korean four-star deputy and one-star Korean deputies, respectively, to offset them on the Korean side.

But most Korean officers seem quite comfortable with the current arrangement where U.S. forces are stationed in Korea, realizing as they do that their hierarchical system and relatively rigid training simply do not equip them to react swiftly and flexibly to events and situations as the CFC would have to in case of major hostilities. Even with recent changes in orders of the day that permits South Korean forces to fire back on to North Korea without prior authorization when attacked, ROK officers remain hesitant to order a major response out of fear of overreacting and truncating what otherwise would have been successful military careers.

Thus, the persistent opposition to wartime operational control transfer, originally scheduled by 2012, from many retired Korean generals and officers, as well as from other conservative groups, despite Korea’s efforts to push the U.S. out.

However, we should note that the U.S. Army continuously maintains the lead in cutting-edge military technology, sophisticated command and control procedures and air power, and, thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan, comes here “battle-hardened.” All of which makes the perception of the South Korean Army operating under the U.S. Army very much a reality, despite legal technicalities. While there has been considerable discussion in the press about the political issues of this wartime command handover, there also remains huge changes needed in information and other systems to accomodate this structural change. Eventually, wartime command handover is expected to take place, but with each postponement, the question remains open as to actually when.

(At times one may wonder if some politicians have found it advantageous to allow the public to remain ignorant of the evolving complexities of the relationship. It could be advantageous for Korean politicians to tacitly give the impression to their public that they have less power than they actually possess. After all, being “under the thumb of Big Brother” gives Korean politicians a plausible rationale to suggest they have no other choice but to do what may be unpopular.

Of course, this potential misleading of the public brings along with it the liability of Koreans understandably jumping to the wrong conclusions during populist movements—such as during last decade’s anti-mad cow demonstrations.)

Tom Coyner is the president of Soft Landing Korea, Ltd. and a Senior Consultant for IPG Legal. He has over 20 years of experience in Japan and Korea working for American firms as well as 7 years working for Japanese companies in the United States. When employed by an American company in Korea, he was twice salesperson of the year for Asia-Pacific largely due to his success in working with Korean distributors. He originally came to Korea as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

by Tom Coyner 

Original Post from the New York Times: South Koreans Ask U.S. to Reconsider Timing of Military Handoff

Sean Hayes may be contacted at:

Sean Hayes is co-chair of the Korea Practice Team at IPG Legal. He is the only non-Korean to have worked as an attorney for the Korean court system (Constitutional Court of Korea) and one of the first non-Koreans to be a regular member of a Korean law faculty.

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