US prepares to cut the apron strings

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 February, 2010, 12:00am

The US and South Korea are heading towards a collision in a dispute over whose officers should command their combined forces if war breaks out on the Korean peninsula. The US says it should be Koreans; the Koreans agree - but argue 'not yet'.

Washington has told Seoul that US forces in Korea, while prepared to help South Korea defend itself against the North, have started to focus on missions outside the Korean peninsula in East Asia and, indeed, around the world. Seoul has expressed serious misgivings, fearing the US will abandon it.

General Walter Sharp, who commands US forces in Korea (USFK), has given speeches lately in which he has reiterated the US commitment to the defence of South Korea. At the same time, he has said US forces in Korea would be regionally engaged and globally deployed in the future.

Ironically, at a time when the Japanese, or at least their relatively new government, are saying to the Americans 'go away and leave us alone', the Koreans are saying to the Americans: 'Don't go away and forsake us.' Another difference: the dispute in Japan has been noisy and carried on in public while, in South Korea, it is mostly subdued.

This issue is rooted in the Korean war of 1950-53, when American, South Korean and all other forces fighting the North Koreans and Chinese fell under the command of the UN, with an American general in charge. That lasted until 1994, when Koreans took command of their own forces in peacetime, and all but a handful of troops other than the Americans had gone home.

Now, when the US is seeking 'strategic flexibility' for the American contingent in Korea so that US troops could deploy elsewhere, the US has insisted that South Korea take command of its forces in wartime. The US will take a secondary role as a supporting force. 'It is the next logical step in the evolution of the alliance,' said USFK spokeswoman Colonel Jane Crichton.

South Koreans, agreeing that they should be in charge of defending their own country, nonetheless say that they are not ready. They point to the need for better command and control systems, better intelligence, logistics, and a fearsome threat from North Korea. They want the transfer of command, now set for April 17, 2012, to be postponed anywhere from a couple of years to eternity.

Crichton acknowledges that the change 'has created mixed feelings; well deserved pride in the [South's] military forces but fear that this change will somehow result in a weaker defence position'. 'While we understand this concern, that will not be the case,' she contends. 'The Republic of Korea's military is a highly capable and professional force and their military leadership is outstanding. They are ready for this new opportunity.'

What she does not say, but officers with access to intelligence do, is that North Korea's armed forces are in such poor shape that the South could surely defeat them. 'The damage would be awful,' said one, 'but [the North] will lose.'

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington