US forces in South Korea have begun a fundamental change in mission, shifting their focus away from defense against North Korea to take on regional responsibilities for protecting US interests elsewhere such as the Taiwan Strait and Southeast Asia. They could also intervene in unforeseen contingencies anyplace.
Like US forces in Okinawa, Japan, which operate as far away as the Indian Ocean, Iraq and East Africa, US troops in South Korea could be sent anywhere and might not be available for the defense of South Korea.
That includes forces earmarked for South Korea in reserve in the US.
“The Korean government has been told that our forces can be deployed anywhere, anytime,” said a senior US officer.
While the security treaty between Washington and Seoul will remain intact, South Korean forces should plan to rely on themselves to repel an assault from North Korea, the officer said.
This change in mission has been started for two reasons:
South Korean troops are capable of defending their nation, at least on the ground, without US help against a North Korean force that, while large, has been gradually weakened by shortages of food, fuel and spare parts. It lacks sufficient training and is equipped mostly with weapons of the 1950s. South Korea might need some US air and naval support.
US forces, notably the Army and Marine Corps, have been stretched thin — some contend to the breaking point — by the long war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Senior officers have warned that, while the US has enough air and naval power to meet most contingencies, the US would be unable to put large numbers of “boots on the ground.” Troops in South Korea might thus be needed to fill a gap.
Making US forces in South Korea available for duty elsewhere has been made easier by a change in government in Seoul.
Former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun asserted that the US could move troops out of South Korea only with his permission.
In response, the US withdrew 9,000 of the 37,000 US troops there and was headed to something under 20,000.
When President Lee Myung-bak met with US President George Bush in the presidential retreat at Camp David last month, he asked for a pause in those reductions. Bush agreed.
Moreover, the US has named a new commander of US forces in South Korea, General Walter Sharp, who will take over in Seoul next month.
Sharp understands the current thinking in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, having served there for almost seven years, the last three as staff director. He was also an assistant commander of the Second Infantry Division in South Korea in the late 1990s.
US and South Korean forces are in the early stages of a 10-year transition plan intended to turn over most defensive duties to South Koreans.
In August, the two forces will conduct their first large scale drill in which the South Koreans for the first time will exercise command and control of forces throughout their country.
That training will continue for the next four years until the South Koreans take operational control — or OPCON in military lingo — of the forces in both peacetime and wartime in April 2012. They have peacetime OPCON now.
To do so, South Korea must invest heavily in communications gear for command and control and in sensors for surveillance and intelligence.
A two-year intelligence transition began last month. The US provides that apparatus and skilled operators now but a US officer said “we’ve told the Koreans we might not be available later.”