Gun Shy in Seoul

Sixty years later, South Korea still isn't ready to take full control of its own defense.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

SEOUL — When it comes to taking charge of coalition forces here on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea has been a little gun shy. South Korea and the United States this week are celebrating the 60-year anniversary of an alliance forged after the Korean War; there were two parades, a big dinner, video retrospectives, and a lot of talk of katchi kapshida ("we stand together"). But after decades of confidence-building joint exercises and billions of dollars in military assistance, it's time for the South Koreans to step up and assume what's called "operational control" of all forces stationed here if war should break out. The problem is, the South Koreans aren't quite ready.

The U.S.-South Korea alliance, a centerpiece of the Pentagon's pivot to Asia, is more dynamic than ever, South Korean and U.S. officials took pains to say this week. "We can't underestimate the true strength of this -- of the blood alliance," Gen. J.D. Thurman, the retiring commander of forces in South Korea, told reporters.

Currently, the United States retains authority over all forces in South Korea. If there were to be a significant provocation from North Korea, for example, the U.S. commander in South Korea would assume control not only of his own 28,000-man force, but South Korea's as well. For years, the United States has wanted to hand over operational control of the forces -- "opcon" in military parlance -- to South Korea. But past efforts to formalize the transfer of control, in 2009 and 2012, never went through. Now the transfer is scheduled again for 2015. Once again, however, the South Koreans want to delay it.

SEOUL — When it comes to taking charge of coalition forces here on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea has been a little gun shy. South Korea and the United States this week are celebrating the 60-year anniversary of an alliance forged after the Korean War; there were two parades, a big dinner, video retrospectives, and a lot of talk of katchi kapshida ("we stand together"). But after decades of confidence-building joint exercises and billions of dollars in military assistance, it’s time for the South Koreans to step up and assume what’s called "operational control" of all forces stationed here if war should break out. The problem is, the South Koreans aren’t quite ready.

The U.S.-South Korea alliance, a centerpiece of the Pentagon’s pivot to Asia, is more dynamic than ever, South Korean and U.S. officials took pains to say this week. "We can’t underestimate the true strength of this — of the blood alliance," Gen. J.D. Thurman, the retiring commander of forces in South Korea, told reporters.

Currently, the United States retains authority over all forces in South Korea. If there were to be a significant provocation from North Korea, for example, the U.S. commander in South Korea would assume control not only of his own 28,000-man force, but South Korea’s as well. For years, the United States has wanted to hand over operational control of the forces — "opcon" in military parlance — to South Korea. But past efforts to formalize the transfer of control, in 2009 and 2012, never went through. Now the transfer is scheduled again for 2015. Once again, however, the South Koreans want to delay it.

On Wednesday, Oct. 2, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a joint statement that formally accepts an approach long sought by South Korea to a "conditions-based" transfer; that’s diplomatic code for giving the South Koreans as much time as they need. Now neither side will commit to saying just when operational control might occur.

The two countries also signed a pact to deter North Korea’s potential use of nuclear arms or other weapons of mass destruction as concerns grow about what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is capable of. That pact was also a little vague, and defense officials trying to explain what it does used words like "framework" to describe the new approach, which itself was a work in progress. In the end, it will be seen as a confidence-building measure for the South Koreans at a time when they need it. "It’s a new strategy that creates enhanced deterrence," said a military official in a briefing to reporters.

Kim, North Korea’s inexperienced young dictator, remains a mystery to the U.S. intelligence community but has shown himself to be an unpredictable leader as he works to live up to the bad-boy image of his forebears. Kim’s successful missile launch in December and his nuclear test in February raised tensions to some of their highest levels in years and shook the South Koreans.

U.S. military officials portrayed North Korea’s leader and the capabilities of his military in stark terms, pointing to its large size (at 1.1 million, the world’s fourth-largest), its composition (about 70 percent is "forward-deployed" or stationed south of Pyongyang), and its secrecy (an estimated 11,000 underground facilities). North Korea’s navy has more than 800 surface ships and more than 70 submarine combatants, the U.S. military believes. Pyongyang possesses about 1,700 aircraft, most of which are relatively rudimentary. Kim has about 4,000 tanks at his disposal and about 13,000 artillery systems, U.S. military officials say.

As Kim tries to achieve the gravitas of his father, Kim Jong Il, he has developed a reputation for attacking with little notice, using lethal weaponry like missiles and long-range artillery. But it is North Korea’s "asymmetric" capability that has South Korean and Western policy and intelligence officials most worried. That includes everything from the nuclear capabilities Pyongyang possesses to its chemical weapons stockpile — thought to be the world’s second-largest. It also has more than 800 ballistic missiles, including the Taepodong-2, which has an estimated range of about 2,600 miles.

Additionally, U.S. military officials say, North Korea has the world’s largest special operations force (SOF) — about 60,000 personnel and about 130,000 "SOF-like" personnel, according to a brief provided by U.S. officials. North Korea also poses a growing cyberthreat, especially to South Korea, which is considered to be one of the world’s most wired countries, with 80 percent of the South’s population using the Internet. Those kinds of capabilities give the North a bigger upper hand than the country might otherwise have, given a diminished economic system that limits the amount of money Kim can spend on the military.

"The fact is that they have some very dedicated human beings up there that are working very hard to further the regime’s interests," said a military official. "Prioritization and focus in some cases allows them to overcome the shortness of resources."

Kim himself remains a mystery. His father consolidated power, but the elder Kim was reasonably confident in his role and therefore was seen as more stable. The younger Kim’s relationship with the military is unclear, as is the question of whether he’s a trusted leader. Military officials note that he typically moves military leaders around — if the commanders who appear with him at the podium during military events are any gauge. But it’s unclear yet what any of that means.

"We’ve been looking at him for a little over 18 months now, but we still don’t understand his intent," a military official said this week.

A new report out by the Center for Naval Analyses, a Washington-area think tank, concludes that Kim has yet been unable to consolidate power — yet still remains a threat.

"If Kim Jong-un is able to survive this final period with his position intact, regime stability will probably be ensured for the foreseeable future," the report notes. "But, there is a possibility that his powers will be curbed or that he will become a puppet to powerful forces inside the regime." If that happens, "the stability of the regime could come into question." With so much uncertainty looming, it’s no wonder the South Koreans are so reluctant about taking military control.

Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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