US continues to push expand scope of crisis management in future CFC

Posted on : 2019-10-30 16:36 KST Modified on : 2019-10-30 16:36 KST
Washington seeks to broaden definition to include “N. Korean threats to US”
An image of North Korea’s test launch of the Pukguksong-3 SLBM published by the Korean Central News Agency on Oct. 2. (Yonhap News)
An image of North Korea’s test launch of the Pukguksong-3 SLBM published by the Korean Central News Agency on Oct. 2. (Yonhap News)

The US is pushing to expand the scope of its crisis management role at the future Combined Forces Command (CFC), which will be led by a South Korean four-star general after the US relinquishes wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces, the Hankyoreh discovered on Oct. 29. While crisis management is currently limited to events on the Korean Peninsula, the US wants the definition to be broadened to include North Korean threats to the US.

The US’ proposal apparently presumes a situation in which North Korea is threatening the US mainland with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) or submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). South Korea has reportedly voiced its concerns that responding to those threats lead to a discussion about a preemptive strike on the North.

According to officials at South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) and military, South Korea and the US are discussing a revision to the document that defines joint defense and crisis management at the future CFC, following the OPCON transfer. This document contains the guidelines for how the CFC should respond to peacetime crises, such as the outbreak of localized fighting. While the document currently defines CFC crisis management as only covering “crises on the Korean peninsula,” the US has reportedly proposed revising this to “crises on the Korean Peninsula and North Korean threats to the US.”

Since peacetime OPCON was returned to the South Korean military in 1994, the scope of CFC’s crisis management has been defined in the Combined Delegation Authority (CODA). The CFC commander exercises authority over a total of six areas, including operational planning and development, joint exercises, and crisis management. The CFC commander also has the authority to decide whether the outbreak of a crisis will lead to a war.

It’s presumed that the US’ proposal, if accepted, would basically extend the scope of the CFC’s crisis management to the American mainland. That seems to reflect the fact that North Korea’s Hwasong-15 ICBM can strike targets as far away as Guam, Alaska, and the West Coast and that North Korea is developing new submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles. Until now, the scope of CFC’s crisis management has been limited to crises on the Korean Peninsula, and alliance deterrence under South Korea and the US’ mutual defense treaty has also been confined to the Pacific region.

“The US is proposing that North Korean threats to the American mainland be assumed during crisis management. Ultimately, that would extend the scope of action under the South Korea-US alliance from the Pacific Ocean to the American mainland,” a source said on condition of anonymity.

Concerns of creating grounds for preemptive US strike against N. Korea

South Korea is reportedly concerned that bringing the US mainland under the scope of CFC crisis management could create the grounds for a preemptive strike against the North. If the US raises the need for a preemptive strike in the interest of crisis management when North Korea test launches an ICBM or SLBM, it could worsen a crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Another objection is that the ambiguous phrasing “North Korean threats against the US” could spark a disagreement between the two countries over the substance of that threat.

The US’ proposal is consistent with the position of US President Donald Trump, who has been asking for South Korea to shoulder more of the cost of the alliance and greatly increase its yearly contribution to defense cost-sharing.

Some allege that the US’ push for “alliance symmetry” could eventually lead to requests for South Korean troops to be deployed to conflict zones. According to these pundits, American emphasis on allied contribution to threat management could entangle South Korea in American military operations in the Strait of Hormuz or the South China Sea. One of the key components of the US’­ Indo-Pacific Strategy, which has the goal of containing China, is a greater role for allies including South Korea and Japan.

“There’s no truth to the claim that South Korean troops could be sent to conflict zones overseas that the US considers a crisis after the OPCON transfer,” said Choi Hyun-soo, spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense.

By Yoo Kang-moon, senior staff writer, and Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

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