The new Seoul government faces a host of daunting security tasks ranging from deterring increasingly emboldened North Korea, to retaking wartime operational control from the U.S. in 2015, to possible challenges to the country’s maritime interests.
Atop the security agenda for the Park Geun-hye administration is strengthening military capabilities to deal with Pyongyang’s increasing nuclear and missile threats as well as other weapons of mass destruction, experts said.
Despite the military threats, Park’s national security team has yet to be formed due to a political tug of war over the government organization plan and a spate of accusations over Defense Minister nominee Kim Byung-kwan.
“Following its third nuclear test on Feb. 12, Pyongyang threatens to conduct fourth and fifth tests as well as missile launches. The regime is unstable and its military threats will increase over time,” said Kwon Tae-young, adviser to the non-profit Korea Research Institute for Strategy.
“As it is unrealistic for now for the South to develop nuclear arms, it should build feasible, credible, non-nuclear, high-tech deterrence capabilities to deal with the North, which would send a strong message to it and help alleviate public anxiety in the South.”
|Then President-elect Park Geun-hye meets Gen. James Thurman (third from left), chief of the the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, Deputy Commander Kwon Oh-sung (third from right) and other officials at the CFC headquarters in Seoul on Feb. 22. (Yonhap News)|
As part of efforts to strengthen peninsular defense, analysts stressed the importance of sufficient preparations to smoothly retake wartime operational control from Washington in December 2015. After the transfer, the South is to lead wartime operations with the U.S. playing a supporting role.
At issue with the OPCON transfer is the construction of a combined command structure. The current South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command is to be dissolved after the transfer. To replace it, the allies have been considering inheriting part of the core CFC features and establishing a small commanding apparatus.
Military experts have opposed the CFC dissolution as it could send the wrong signal to a provocative North Korea. Others expressed concern that establishing the so-called mini-CFC could undermine South Korea’s commanding authority.
“I’m reluctant to see the (CFC) go away. But they (the allies) may well do that. That may well happen in 2015. I think the question we have to ask is what the impact on North Korea of the CFC going away is,” said Bruce Bennett, a military expert at the RAND Corporation, in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.
“Do they become more adventuresome, thinking that U.S. is disengaging? How do we prevent them from becoming more adventurous? That’s a hard problem to work out.”
In line with the OPCON transfer, Seoul and Washington have also been working on drawing up new joint operational plans and procedures to replace existing ones that were crafted on the premise that the U.S. was to lead wartime operations.
The allies have been discussing the creation of an operational plan, known as OPLAN 5015, which would replace the current OPLAN 5027.
Under the current plan, the U.S. is to dispatch its 690,000 troops to the peninsula and mobilize 160 military vessels and 2,500 aircraft within 90 days of the outbreak of a war. But analysts said this plan would be no longer realistic considering a string of factors such as the U.S. decision to reduce its ground troops including marines.
Bennett called the 690,000 troop level under the OPLAN 5027 a “historical number,” stressing it would be no longer applicable given that the U.S. has shifted toward a rotational troop deployment. He added the U.S. troop commitment hinges on what else the U.S. is doing at the time of a peninsular contingency.
“The 690,000 number was an immediate post-Cold War kind of number. The problem of that concept is that works if you’re going to do it only for six months and bring them back home. But if I’m going to have the forces there potentially for years, as we did in Iraq, The U.S.’ got to have a rotational basis,” he said.
“On a rotational basis, if I have 10 divisions, I’m only going to commit about three of them at any given time. Well, three of them is a whole lot less than what we were originally talking about committing. It’s no longer applicable because the nature of the rotation is going to take the number lower.”
Kim Yeoul-soo, politics professor at Sungshin Women’s University, said as Seoul and Washington have different security priorities and national interests, the allies might have a tug of war in mapping out new war-related procedures.
“While discussing the OPLAN 5015, there could be some conflict between them over whether to include the concept of the preemptive strikes on North Korea’s nuclear and missile bases and how many assets the U.S. should commit in case of North Korea’s local provocations,” said Kim.
Kim added the allies should also start discussing contingency plans to prepare for North Korea’s possible nuclear attacks as the current war plans including those under discussion are based largely on conventional warfare scenarios.
Seoul has been relying on America’s nuclear umbrella. But following the North’s third nuclear test, some conservatives have floated the idea of South Korea’s nuclear armament and the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear arms.
But experts said the redeployment of U.S. tactical weapons was impractical because it would hamper the U.S. initiatives of non-proliferation and the U.S. does not have ground-based tactical nukes to be deployed to the peninsula. The U.S. is known to have some 760 tactical nukes ― some 200 deployed to the NATO’s Air Force and the remainder for naval forces stored in the U.S. mainland.
To enhance nuclear deterrence against the North, Seoul and Washington have been consulting over a “tailored deterrence strategy” at the bilateral Extended Deterrence Policy Committee. They agreed last year to craft it by 2014.
Apart from war scenarios, the allies have also been in talks over a set of procedures to deal with the North’s provocations and possible contingencies such as a sudden collapse of the regime. They initially planned to complete the plan by January this year, but appeared to take more time before finalizing it.
The major issue is the scope of a potential counterattack, a source said. Seoul argues it should launch a counterstrike on the supporting forces as well the origin of the provocation.
But Washington appears uneasy about Seoul taking too aggressive a stance due to the risk of provocations escalating into a full-blown war, which could drag in both the U.S. and China at a time both powers are struggling with domestic challenges.
In sync with the OPCON transfer, the Park government also faces a tough challenge to overhaul the military’s top command structure.
The preceding government had sought a military reform aimed at enhancing cooperation among the three armed services and making the top commanding structure “strong, speedy and slim.” But the efforts had foundered amid resistance from retired generals and other experts.
Under the reform plans, the Defense Ministry sought to put four-star chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force under the operational control of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and merge the military command and administration.
Currently, the top officials of the three services only have the authority to lead personnel management, education, logistical support and other administrative affairs. They do not have authority to direct military operations.
“When we are under the wartime operational control of the U.S. commander, the current South Korean commanding structure with the military administration and command separated did not (have serious trouble),” said Kim of Sungshin Women’s University.
“But after the OPCON transfer, the two functions need to be merged into a unitary chain of command (for optimal, efficient operations).”
The new Seoul government also faces tough decisions over an array of costly defense acquisition deals including the high-profile project to purchase a high-end fleet of 60 combat aircraft and others to develop an indigenous middle-class fighter and purchase attack helicopters and Global Hawk spy drones.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)