South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo hands over the ROK-US Combined Forces Command flag to Robert Abrams
The US recently stated the position that the UN Command (UNC), which is in charge of duties related to maintaining the armistice agreement, should be involved in the management of crisis situations on the Korean Peninsula even after wartime operational control (OPCON) is returned to the South Korean military, it was reported on Sept. 3.
Observers are questioning whether the US is seeking to effectively control the South Korean military through the UNC even after a future Combined Forces Command (CFC) led by a South Korean general arrives with the OPCON transfer.
According to accounts from the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) and military officials, the US argued during joint command post exercises on Aug. 11–20 that the UNC Command should be involved in the management of Korean Peninsula crisis situations after the OPCON transfer. While the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and CFC currently handle crisis management duties for the peninsula during peacetime, the US maintained that the UNC should be involved once a future CFC led by a South Korean general is established following the OPCON transfer. With the role of UN Commander consistently performed by the US Forces Korea Commander in the past, observers are seeing the move as an attempt to maintain US influence under the future CFC framework.
the newly appointed US Forces Korea commander
The US reportedly placed particular emphasis on the need to respond within the armistice agreement framework in the event of a situation that results in rising tensions such as a localized provocation. Its argument is that the UN Command’s rules of engagement and general command approach should be applied to the South Korean military within the armistice agreement framework. The US’ position is seen as reflecting its aims of avoiding being dragged into an unwanted conflict due to the full-scale escalation of a potential Korean Peninsula crisis scenario. Indeed, the recent joint command post exercises reportedly proceeded under a scenario where the armistice agreement was more or less maintained, rather than one of total war.
The US’ argument is being read as intended to use maintaining the armistice system as a pretext for expanding the UN Command’s role even after the OPCON transfer.
“The US is hoping to manage the Korean Peninsula within the armistice system framework,” said Lee Soo-hyoung, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS).
“This could end up clashing with the aims of the Moon Jae-in administration in terms of establishing a peace regime through the conclusion of a peace agreement,” Lee predicted.
Observers are raising concerns that the significance of the OPCON transfer could be undercut if the UNC’s role is expanded according to US requests. The South Korean military’s operational authority could end up constrained as it is bound up with the framework of the UNC maintaining the armistice system. The UNC’s duties currently involve managing and maintaining the armistice agreement; in a wartime situation, it assumes the role of supporting the ROK-US Combined Forces Command with fighting strength provided by member countries.
“The US’ argument is an attempt to separate the future Combined Forces Command and UN Command after the OPCON transfer,” explained a South Korean government source.
“If that happens, the US would basically be assuming command authority for UN forces during a Korean Peninsula wartime situation by means of the UN Command,” the source said, suggesting that the UNC would provide the US with a means of exercising command authority without relying on a future CFC under the command of a South Korean general.
UNC rules of engagement differ from S. Korean military’s
Questions concerning authority appear poised to arise if the UNC gains control over the South Korean armed forces within the armistice system framework in a situation of intensifying crisis on the Korean Peninsula. In the event of a localized provocation or other crisis, the UNC could use its rules of engagement as a basis for constraining operations by the South Korean military after it regains OPCON. The UNC rules of engagement include the “principle of proportionality,” where the likelihood of escalation and rising of tensions are precisely estimated. In contrast, the South Korean military’s rules of engagement are not bound by the principle of proportionality – in principle, it could respond at three to four times the level of a given provocation.
The US position is also consistent with a program launched in 2014 to “revitalize” the UNC. The US has recently been moving to beef up the command’s role in practical terms, with a representation of multiple countries among the deputy commander and other key advisers. A plan for deploying officers with the German military to the UNC rather than the UNC’s own affiliated officers was discussed with Germany, but abandoned after South Korea objected. A controversy was also sparked when the USFK’s recently published “2019 Strategic Digest” mentioned strengthening cooperation through Japan, raising questions about whether this was an attempt to include Japan as a UNC dispatch state.
The move to beef up the UNC’s role appears likely to surface as an issue in future discussions between South Korea and the US as well. At their 50th Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in late October of last year, the two sides discussed terms of reference (TOR) in connection with the relationship among the South Korean Joint Chiefs, the UNC, and the CFC. At the time, the MND explained, “The South Korean and US defense ministries are continuing to maintain and support the UN Command, which has performed a role in preventing armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula, and are developing the interrelationship among the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, the UN Command, the USFK Command, and the UN Command.”
By Yoo Kang-moon, senior staff writer, and Noh Ji-won, staff reporter
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