from Asia Unbound

Burden-Sharing in the U.S.-South Korea Alliance: Finding Balance

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo pose ahead of a meeting at the Defense Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, on August 9, 2019. Lee Jin-man/Reuters

The purpose, intent, and rationale of OPCON transition must be properly explained to the South Korean and American publics.

February 27, 2020

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo pose ahead of a meeting at the Defense Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, on August 9, 2019. Lee Jin-man/Reuters
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This post is authored by David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army, retired Special Forces colonel, and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). It is part of a project conducted by the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation and Korea Foundation. This series of posts will address the transition of operational control (OPCON) on the Korean Peninsula. To further stimulate an open discussion of these issues, we would like to invite reader responses. Please contact Ellen Swicord at eswicord@cfr.org for submission guidelines if you are interested in contributing a response.

Interoperability in the ROK-U.S. Alliance

The U.S.-South Korea alliance has matured into a strong relationship and partnership. While the two militaries are not equals, they are among the most complementary of the U.S. alliance relationships. Although not explicitly stated in any strategic documents, the alliance combines the strengths of the two to mitigate the inherent weaknesses of the other. Each brings comparative advantages that confirms the old adage: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The bulk of the ground forces and ground fighting will undoubtedly be handled by the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army and Marine Corps. At the height of mobilization and U.S. Time Phased Force Deployment Data flow, the ROK will field some 3.5 million personnel and the United States some 700,000. The ROK must continue to invest in and optimize its ground combat power (maneuver and fires), especially given emerging demographic challenges like the decline of military age males that cannot be offset by technology alone. Every scenario, from war to chaos and instability and regime collapse to post-conflict and/or post-collapse operations, will be manpower intensive. Only three approaches will offset this: an increase in U.S. forces, the employment of international coalitions forces, and/or a new reserve structure that maintains a ready reserve trained to a higher level than currently exists in the ROK. The ROK can only control the third. It must revise its reserve manpower structure, manning, and training process to offset demographic challenges.


Both militaries must also ensure sufficient interoperability. Both governments must provide adequate funding to invest in interoperable systems. This does not mean buying and fielding only U.S. equipment, but as long as there is a national requirement for an alliance and combined warfighting, interoperability is of paramount importance. This applies not only to equipment and systems, but also to doctrine and warfighting concepts and tactics, techniques, and procedures.

The ROK Air Force and Navy are among the most advanced in Asia and have excellent interoperability with the United States. However, both would benefit from increased airlift assets and amphibious shipping to support the Army and Marine Corps. To that end, the ROK must increase investment in sustainment capabilities as well as chemical and biological defense. The ROK has naval capabilities that can contribute to keeping the sea lines of communication open into and out of the Korean theater of operations, and can contribute to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Straits of Malacca, and the Gulf.

Command and control (C2 or C4I) and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are most important. The ROK must develop an indigenous capability to C2 ROK joint forces and ensure interoperability with combined forces.

Change of Command and ROK/U.S. CFC Headquarters Responsibilities

Since the beginning of the operational control (OPCON) transition process in 2003, alliance managers have worked to develop ROK independent warfighting capabilities with the initial focus on the dissolution of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) and separate ROK and U.S. warfighting commands in the supporting to supported relationship. However, that has changed with the move from an OPCON transition process to a Change of Command. The ROK/U.S. CFC will simply undergo a change of command from a U.S. general officer (GO) in command to a ROK GO in command.

In open source discussions, we have not seen what the future ROK/U.S. CFC headquarters will look like in terms of equipping. Currently the U.S. Army is the executive agent for U.S. Forces Korea and the ROK/U.S. CFC. It provides the communications backbone and logistical support for the command, including facilities management in garrison and at the warfighting headquarters location. With a ROK GO in command, will this responsibility shift to the ROK military?

Some say the United States should transfer current equipment to the ROK. Is the ROK prepared to manage the communications backbone for CFC? Though everyone focuses on high end warfighting weapons systems and equipment, the operation of the ROK/U.S. CFC is most important for the command, control, coordination, synchronization, and orchestration of joint and combined and coalition operations. Who will have executive agent responsibility for equipping, supporting, and operating combined headquarters functions

Equitable Burden-Sharing in Support of Alliance Objectives

The allies need a system for their financial contributions to the security of the peninsula. First they need to negotiate and agree on a philosophy. Should costs be fair and equitably distributed between the two? What categories of support should be negotiated? This must be established before actual cost sharing negotiations begin. The philosophy and categories of support cannot be changed during negotiations or by a single party. All changes must be agreed upon before cost sharing negotiations begin.

As part of the cost sharing for U.S. forces, a specific “philosophy” should be decided on. Should the United States “profit” from its troops stationed in Korea or should only “incremental costs” be shared? Incremental costs are those above the cost of U.S. military forces stationed in the continental United States. In addition, negotiations should include costs for anything unique to station on the Korean Peninsula. The percentage of support should also be negotiated. The ROK and United States must be completely transparent regarding the unique costs and contributions they make and properly account for all expenditures to ensure compliance with the intent of both countries’ national command and military authorities.

Costs and Benefits of OPCON Transition

This is arguably the most important and, in my view, most neglected aspect of the OPCON transition process.

There is a fundamental lack of understanding of the OPCON transition. Press, pundits, and partisan politicos on both sides of the Pacific are unaware of the history, plan, intent, and necessity of the transition. The structure of the combined military presence is complex and difficult for even many military personnel to understand unless they have lived it. It is even more alien to outsiders. This has led to much misunderstanding, political issues, and uncertainty.

In the ROK, there is the historical issue of the United Nations Command resulting from the war, the bilateral command established in 1978 with a U.S. GO in charge, and the fact that most Koreans refer to U.S. troops in Korea as USFK with the misperception that ROK troops fall under the command of USFK. This has created a view in the ROK that the U.S. military presence and “control” of ROK forces is an affront to Korean sovereignty. Ostensibly, the general public desires to return military control to the Korean government and restore sovereignty. This leads to a second problem: the misperception that the ROK will control U.S. forces on the peninsula post-OPCON transition.

The U.S. side faces both a current and future problem. Most in the United States believe the ROK is or should be capable of and responsible for ensuring its own defense. However, following the OPCON transition if Americans believe the ROK is capable of independent self-defense, they may demand withdrawal of U.S. troops or, as we are currently witnessing, that the ROK to pay more for the presence of U.S. troops.

As OPCON transition negotiations progress, accusations may arise that the United States is violating the “Pershing Rule,” which says U.S. troops will not be placed under foreign command. Some political factions in the United States will demand that U.S. troops not be placed under the command of a foreign general and there may be pressure to withdraw from the command and even withdraw troops from the peninsula. The political issues on both sides of the Pacific are similar in nature, with the Korean side’s growing for the past 67 years since the Mutual Defense Treaty and the U.S. side’s about to begin in earnest unless these issues can be mitigated before they emerge.

The purpose, intent, rationale, and structure of the combined military force must be properly explained to the public. The following key elements of a communications plan must be developed and implemented to support the OPCON transition.

More on:

South Korea

North Korea

Nuclear Weapons

Military Operations

Northeast Asia

  1. A combined command is most effective and efficient and contributes to deterrence and defense.
  2. The change of command can occur because of the maturity of the ROK military and U.S. trust in its leadership.
  3. Operations in North Korea must be led by a ROK GO to ensure long-term ROK legitimacy and prevent the perception of the United States as an occupying power. This will also undermine North Korean propaganda and contribute to reducing resistance inside the North.
  4. The ROK and United States have “co-ownership” of the command, and the function and importance of the Military Committee must be emphasized. There are no sovereignty or Pershing Rule issues.
  5. Public affairs officers must educate the media to use the term “ROK/U.S. CFC” to describe the combined command and refrain from using “USFK” in relation to operational control of warfighting forces. USFK has no responsibility for warfighting, only joint support to U.S. forces in the ROK/U.S. CFC, just as ROK JCS has similar responsibilities to support ROK forces in the ROK/U.S. CFC.

More on:

South Korea

North Korea

Nuclear Weapons

Military Operations

Northeast Asia

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