South Korea: Forever Dependent on America

"Sixty-one years after the end of the Korean War, the ROK still refuses to defend itself."

The Republic of Korea is one of the world’s great success stories. The war-torn former Japanese colony has become a high-tech industrialized nation with one of the world’s largest economies. Years of military dictatorship have given way to robust democracy.

But sixty-one years after the end of the Korean War, the ROK still refuses to defend itself. In fact, its officials appear determined to preserve America’s outdated security guarantee by keeping their nation militarily helpless and dependent.

South Korea’s ambitions are similar to those of any other major power. Its businesses operate around the globe. Its people go abroad as missionaries and tourists. Its diplomats participate in foreign forums. Its military contributes to international peacekeeping operations. And its government is creating armed forces capable of acting overseas, including a “blue water” navy for deployment well beyond the ROK’s own waters. The Park government is even considering constructing two light aircraft carriers in the coming decades.

Yet Seoul doesn’t exercise operational control over its own military in wartime. That authority remains with the United States as it has since the Korean War.

American control originally made sense, since the ROK’s authoritarian government was both feckless and reckless. But economic prosperity arrived in the 1960s. Democracy finally came a quarter century later.

Today, the South enjoys vast advantages over its decrepit antagonist to the north: forty times the economic strength, twice the population, a vast technological lead, easy access to international markets and almost unanimous diplomatic support. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea can’t even count on its traditional ally, China, in a military showdown on the peninsula.

However, the ROK insists that it is incapable of defending itself against the North, which has suffered through mass malnutrition and starvation, agricultural disaster, industrial collapse and international isolation. The Park government complains that the South Korean army lacks adequate command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities—six decades after the last war; after turning into an economic powerhouse; while considering the construction of aircraft carriers.

South Koreans once were embarrassed that operational control (OPCON) was lodged with the U.S. Peacetime operational control and was returned to the ROK only in 1994. The United States was happy to shift responsibility, having been blamed for the depredations of the last military dictatorship because some South Koreans wrongly assumed Washington could have prevented brutal repression as in the city of Kwangju.

The South Korean government raised the issue of wartime control in 2003. The United States again was open, initially proposing to transfer control in 2009. But ROK hawks mobilized against the leftish South Korean government, slowing the process. In 2007, the two countries agreed to turn OPCON over to the ROK in 2012. But after a North Korean nuclear test and other provocations, ROK defense minister Kim Tae-young, representing a more conservative government, complained that the planned date would be “the worst time” to do so. In June 2010, the two governments kicked the shift back to December 2015.

Last year, the South cited North Korea’s latest nuclear test, which, said Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, made it “inappropriate to change the command structure as scheduled.” He pointed to other “situations” as well, arguing that “North Korea is different from the past.” At the April summit between President Barack Obama and President Park Geun-hye, the two governments agreed to reconsider the timing. The latest round of bilateral discussions occurred just last month.

Analysts expect the transfer to be bumped back another five to seven years at the annual U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meetings scheduled for October. Of course, past experience suggests that as 2020 approaches, Seoul will request another postponement. The South appears to be committed to permanent dependence.

In fact, South Korea’s helplessness is a result of its own decisions. To take over OPCON the ROK needs more advanced weapons and an increased ability to use them. However, Seoul should obtain those capabilities irrespective of OPCON to defend itself. If it hasn’t acquired them over the last sixty-one years, what has the ROK armed forces been doing? What is wrong with Seoul?

Indeed, observed Larry Niksch, formerly of the Congressional Research Service: “since the [Combined Forces Command] was formed in the late 1970s, U.S. and South Korean military personnel have worked side-by-side—physically side-by-side—in all of the operations of the command. It is difficult to believe that the South Korean command has not achieved a high level of preparedness over this 30-year period.”