Global Policy Forum

Seoul Seeks Wartime Control


By Choe Sang-Hun

International Herald Tribune
August 10, 2006

For South Koreans who go about their daily routine in this bustling capital oblivious to the North Korean menace only an hour's drive away, much of their sense of security in the past half-century has derived from a belief that if war breaks out, the United States will take control of the South Korean military and fight as if it was America's own war.

But that sense of security has been undermined in the past week as news leaked out that President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea was pushing for one of the biggest shake-ups in the U.S.- South Korean military alliance since it was forged during the Korean War. Seoul and Washington - at the request of South Korea - are working on a plan that will shift wartime operational control of Korean troops from the combined U.S.-South Korean forces command, headed by an American general, to the South Koreans. The plan was leaked recently to South Korean media and was confirmed this week by U.S. and Korean officials. Responding to a growing storm of criticism over the plan, Roh said Wednesday in an interview with the South Korean news agency Yonhap that the old agreement giving the Americans wartime control of South Korean troops was anachronistic, something of which South Koreans today should feel ashamed.

"To say that we South Koreans are not capable of defending ourselves from North Korea is to talk nonsense. It's shameful," Roh said in the interview. "I hope we kick the habit of feeling insecure unless we have layers of guarantee that the Americans will intervene automatically in case of war." In a joint statement Thursday, the country's 17 former defense ministers said they were "shocked" by Roh's comments. They demanded a halt to the talks on changing the wartime command, which "will certainly unravel the alliance and lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops." Under the plan being discussed by the United States and South Korea, the combined forces command - to old South Koreans, a symbol of U.S. commitment to defending their country, but to younger generations, a painful reminder of a foreign military influence - will be disbanded.

The U.S. military will stay on, perhaps in reduced numbers, and play a supporting role, officials say. South Korea wants to take back the authority for wartime combat by 2012. The Pentagon says South Korea can have the authority back by 2009. Roh said Wednesday that anytime in between those dates would be fine; indeed, he said, Seoul could take it back "even now." Both sides aim to complete their transfer road map by October, when their defense chiefs meet. "We think it's a request whose time has come," a senior Pentagon official, who requested anonymity, said in Washington at a news briefing this week. Roh said: "The South Korean military has enough capabilities and the South Korea-U.S. alliance will not shake. Don't worry."

Such official rhetoric notwithstanding, the negotiations are charged with bad feelings - another measure of how far the alliance, once among the strongest Washington had in Asia, has weakened, experts said. "The concern is just a steady atrophying over time, hollowing out, of the relationship," Derek Mitchell, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a telephone interview from Washington. "I think it can just become a shell" of its former self. In Seoul, Song Dae Sung, senior fellow at Sejong Institute, said: "The relationship between South Korea and the United States under the Roh and Bush administrations is like that of a married couple who have no love at all, but still live in the same house." Seoul hopes that retrieving wartime control would give it a, more independent say in Northeast Asia and in potential arms talks with the North Korea.

"Getting back wartime operational control is a matter of national pride for a sovereign country," said Kim Geun Tae, head of the governing Uri Party. The political opposition and conservative newspapers have excoriated Roh for endangering national security by alienating the United States amid heightened threats from North Korea.

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