South Korea and the United States are reportedly exploring ways to ensure that Seoul’s planned takeover from Washington of wartime operation control of its troops by December 2015 does not weaken deterrence against North Korea.
According to reports, one option being studied by the two allies is to transform the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division into a joint unit and maintain the present deployment of its key troops near the border with the North.
The idea deserves backing as it can bolster the allies’ deterrent posture after the current ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command is dismantled following the control transition.
The CFC ensures close and effective cooperation between the militaries of the two countries as the commander of U.S. Forces Korea assumes operational control of South Korean forces in the event of a North Korean attack.
Yet it cannot exist in its current form once South Korea regains full control of its military. Hence the two allies agreed to set up a new structure to facilitate cooperation between their two militaries on an equal footing.
But the new arrangement proposed to replace the CFC fell short of addressing the concerns that the control transition might weaken the allies’ capability to fend off North Korean aggression.
Furthermore, security concerns rose sharply following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il last December. Under a young, inexperienced leader, the North’s powerful military has ratcheted up tension on the Korean Peninsula. This brought home to the military leaders of the two allies the need to strengthen their deterrence capabilities.
According to reports, Seoul and Washington are seeking to transform the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division into joint forces by augmenting it with a brigade consisting of Korean soldiers.
They are also deliberating revision of the announced plan to relocate the forward-deployed division, along with other troops of U.S. Forces Korea, to Pyeongtaek, some 70 kilometers south of Seoul, by 2016.
To enhance deterrence, it is necessary to keep the division stationed near the front lines. Thus far, the unit has played a “tripwire” role ― its forward deployment ensures the automatic involvement of the U.S. military in the event North Korea attacks the South.
The combat-ready division’s relocation would mean to the North the removal of a big obstacle. Especially, the North would welcome the movement of the division’s artillery brigade as its multiple launch rocket systems can strike the long-range artillery and mechanized units deployed north of the border.
In this respect, the plan to transform the infantry division into joint forces and keep it stationed near the front lines, if implemented, would ease the security concerns arising from the planned control transfer.
Yet a better way to address the concerns would be to maintain the CFC even after the control transition. According to press reports, USFK Commander Gen. James Thurman recently sounded out South Korean military leaders about maintaining the CFC after the control handover. He reportedly suggested that a Korean general be appointed as its commander.
The Ministry of Defense has denied the U.S. has made such a proposal. And it is unclear what motivated the U.S. general to broach the idea. Yet the idea definitely deserves serious consideration. We hope military leaders of the two allies discuss it seriously.