After slicing through the pretty words and diplomatic rhetoric coming out of a meeting between the US and Republic of Korea (ROK) defense ministers in Seoul last week, it is evident that the US-South Korean alliance is troubled.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and South Korean Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin sought to paper over differences about who is responsible for defending South Korea and who should pay for it. Hagel was forceful in confirming that the US’ “nuclear umbrella” protected South Korea.
A basic issue was the transfer of operational control over South Korean forces in wartime. Currently, a US general has operational control over both South Korean and US forces in the South should war break out while the South runs peacetime training and deployment of its forces.
The US has long wanted to shed wartime operational control, asserting that South Koreans should take full responsibility for their own defense. However, South Korean leaders have twice succeeded in putting off that transfer, which is due in 2015, arguing that they were not ready and that North Korea would be tempted to attack after the change.
In a press conference, Kim said: “Secretary Hagel and I share an understanding on the condition-based operational control transition.”
“We have further agreed to create a ROK-US joint working group to discuss these issues,” he added.
Hagel said he was optimistic that they would agree and “we will get to where we need to be.”
What he really meant is: “We have agreed on nothing, but will keep on talking.”
The US also wants to dismantle the Combined Forces Command in which officers from both sides share the planning and logistic workload. The same arguments arise as with transfer of operational control.
The underlying fear of the South Koreans, which civilian officials and military officers express freely in private, is that the US will withdraw its forces from South Korea despite repeated pledges that the US is committed to the nation’s defense.
In a communique, Hagel “reiterated the firm and unwavering US commitment to the defense of the ROK” not only with forces on the Korean Peninsula, but from anywhere else in the world.
Actually, the US has long been reducing its forces in South Korea. The US position, which the South Koreans do not accept, has been that the presence of US military forces is not necessary to confirm its treaty and political commitments.
In the communique, Hagel “reiterated the commitment to maintain the current level of US military personnel” in South Korea. While literally accurate, note that he did not say what the level was.
The US has pledged to keep 28,500 troops in South Korea. However, the Pentagon, Pacific Command in Hawaii and US Forces Korea — the US military headquarters in Seoul — refuses to disclose the actual figure. Privately, informed officers suggest that the number is well below 25,000 and most of them are support staff rather than combat troops.
Rather than assigning US soldiers to South Korea for one or two-year tours, the US Army has begun deploying forces from the US on rotations. Late last month, an armed reconnaissance squadron from Washington state arrived with 380 soldiers and 30 Kiowa helicopters. They are to go home in nine months.
The mission of US forces in South Korea has changed. While they would help defend that nation, they are focused more on contingencies elsewhere, much like the US forces on Okinawa, which might be called on to help defend Japan, but are more concerned with threats outside of Japan.
To be ready for that new mission, the US forces in South Korea are being consolidated into fewer bases, from which they can be deployed on short notice. US Army infantry units are being withdrawn from camps north of Seoul and are being gathered into a new post in Pyeongtaek, 56km south of Seoul, near a port and an air base.
Hagel and Kim reaffirmed that the UN Command remained crucial to peace on the Korean Peninsula. In reality, the UN Command has become a paper headquarters left over from UN resolutions adopted in 1950 when the Korean War erupted. It serves only to give the appearance of legality to US — among a few other nations — forces in South Korea.
Asked what would be South Korea’s share of the cost of maintaining US forces in that nation, Kim said that the amount has “yet to be negotiated.”
Hagel said: “We’ll adjust. We are adjusting now. We have to adjust.”
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that the US wanted Seoul to pay US$934 million next year, while the South offered US$748 million.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.