At a time when South Korea is announcing forced cutbacks and US troops are redeploying inside the country, the senior US commander in the country, General Vincent Brooks, said today that Seoul is not yet ready to take over wartime operational control of its own troops.
As the top American soldier in Korea, Brooks wears three hats: head of the UN Command, which oversees the Korean War armistice; chief of the Combined Forces Command, which unites South Korean and US forces; and commander of US Forces Korea, or USFK, the 28,500-strong US force stationed on the peninsula.
Brooks is widely respected in South Korea not just for his military background, but also for his diplomatic approach. A charismatic West Pointer who was the first African-American cadet captain at the academy, and a veteran of Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, he spoke with a rare combination of eloquence, frankness and diplomatic sensitivity while briefing foreign correspondents in Seoul on Wednesday.
Though he praised the strength of the South Korea-US alliance and the excellence of the local military, Brooks admitted some concerns over moves by Seoul to remove guard posts from inside the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, and conceded that joint exercises on the peninsula – currently in an indefinite state of suspension – might gain diplomatic traction, but could degrade force effectiveness.
Seoul ‘not ready’ for wartime control
The issue of operational control of Korean troops has long been contentious and has a long history. The last time the US handed “OpCon” to the South Korean military was in 1949. The following year – after cross-border skirmishes initiated by both sides – North Korea invaded South Korea. In 1950, a US general assumed wartime command of South Korean, US and other allied troops, and has held it ever since.
The issue of US control has been politically sensitive since then-general (and later president) Chun Do-hwan deployed South Korean forces to suppress pro-democracy demonstrators in the city of Gwangju in 1980, when some 200 protesters were killed. Many South Koreans believe that the US was to some degree complicit in what is today considered a massacre. Only in 1994 did Seoul re-assume full peacetime operational control of its troops.
The transfer of wartime operational control was subsequently requested by Seoul in 2005, while the left-leaning President Roh Moo-hyun – close friend and mentor of current president Moon Jae-in – was in power. It has been subject to negotiations ever since, with Moon stating last September that he seeks “the early takeover of wartime operational control… on the basis of our independent defense capabilities.”
But according to Brooks, that time is not now. “We have a very deliberate process for determining whether conditions have been met for transferring operational control of forces in wartime,” he said. The general listed those conditions as: Command and Control structure; “some critical military capabilities that I won’t go into that need to be in the possession” of South Korean troops; and “the actual conditions of the environment – whether it is the right time to change the lead.”
“We are making process in each of these areas,” Brooks concluded. “But the time is not right to make a change yet.”
Any solution looks tricky. It would likely involve either dissolving the current Combined Forces Command structure for South Korean and US troops, or retaining that structure, but placing a South Korean general in charge. The latter might prove politically impossible in Washington. Moreover, there is no roadmap. Earlier this year, a US officer with knowledge of the issue, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Asia Times that there is no benchmark in place for the process.
Questions over military readiness
While the allies negotiate the labyrinthine issues surrounding “OpCon Transfer,” other moves are afoot. Following the Singapore summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump, major South Korea-US exercises – which the North considers provocative, and Trump considers expensive, and which military figures insist are necessary to hone combat readiness – have been halted indefinitely.
Brooks, who described the forces under his command “a responsive instrument in the hands of both presidents”, said that exercises could be adjusted, “depending on what is needed to create traction diplomatically.” The postponement of regular summer exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian “was intended with that purpose in mind – to create room for traction immediately following the Singapore summit,” he said.
But one motto of USFK is “Ready to Fight Tonight.” On the issue of military preparedness, Brooks said: “We will find other ways to maintain readiness and that means more creativity… to make sure we do not atrophy in our readiness while this diplomatic effort is ongoing.”
But, he admitted that while it is possible to maintain war-fighting skills without exercises, “…it won’t be the same as a large, everyone-in-the-game-at-once collective experience.”
At a time when Washington is seeking to kickstart the process of North Korean nuclear disarmament, Seoul is promoting détente with Pyongyang. The Moon administration is also restructuring its armed forces. The government has announced plans to cut its 618,000-strong military by 100,000 and is reviewing a number of expensive missile programs, including components of its “Kill Chain,” a system tasked with preventing a North Korean nuclear launch. It has also halted propaganda operations along the DMZ and is mulling the removal of guard posts from inside the DMZ.
This combination of factors, and others, has raised concern in some circles, such as the conservative website One Free Korea, that the Moon administration is degrading its defenses.
Brooks disagreed. “If you put all those pieces together and come to that conclusion… I don’t see that,” Brooks said. Regarding South Korea’s reduction in force size, which Seoul says is due to the country’s falling birthrate, but, given the unpopularity of military service, is also likely a vote-winner, he said: “It takes into account where they see themselves here and in the future with demographics, which will change. There is prudence inside that decision.”
As for the removal of DMZ guard posts, Brooks called the step “a good example of a tension-reducing measure that can help to build trust.” However, he admitted that “there is risk involved,” and that he, personally, felt conflicted, given his dual role.
“As United Nations Command commander, I support initiatives that reduce tension along the military demarcation line,” he said. “As Combined Forces Commander, responsible for defending the Republic of Korea, I have some concerns about the ability to defend the MDL [Military Demarcation Line], and in-depth beyond it.”
The USFK is also redeploying inside South Korea, shifting headquarters and logistic units from its huge base at Yongsan, in central Seoul to a huge new complex of bases and facilities at Pyongtaek, 65km south of the capital. US troops have disengaged from the Demilitarized Zone – except at the truce village of Panmunjom, leaving just one skeleton US division north of the strategic Han River valley, in which Seoul is located.
While a massive, walled-off US presence in the center of the South’s capital has widely been considered obtrusive, the abandoned base will be turned into a public park by Seoul City. But there are fears among South Korean conservatives that the redeployment of US forces south of the Han negates Korea’s defense.
Brooks disagreed. “I see it as a prudent and necessary adjustment that does not reduce our effectiveness,” he said, adding that South Korean troops who have taken over responsibility for defense of the DMZ 56km north of Seoul are “far more capable than when I was a battalion commander here 22 years ago.”
Concerns over peace treaty, US force size
Although South Korea is bound to the US with a mutual defense treaty, there are fears among some local conservatives, who cite the fate of South Vietnam in 1975 and say the US might abandon its ally. This concern has recently been amplified by fears that, if Washington agrees to sign a Korean War peace treaty – a long-standing North Korean request, that is currently being aired by Pyongyang as part-and-parcel of denuclearization negotiations – an eventual withdrawal of USFK could take place.
“I have no concern that is going to destroy the alliance…any decision made regarding peace will be an alliance decision,” Brooks said. “The alliance will endure well beyond the activities of the present time.”
He said there was no current plan to reduce the size of USFK. However, Trump has frequently stated his wish to bring troops home, and since the Korean War ended in 1953, USFK has been in a process of near-constant shrinkage. How low USFK numbers could drop and still constitute an effective deterrent is a question much debated in Seoul.
While that issue was not addressed by Brooks, a foreign military officer with close knowledge of Koreas, who spoke off the record, recalled a cynical NATO assumption from the 1980s. A defensive US force could feasibly be reduced to a single soldier, he said, “assuming he was killed in the initial enemy attack, which would predispose Washington to intervene.”