2014-11-03 By Richard Weitz
The United States and South Korea just completed their most important series of national security meetings this year.
On October 24, the South Korean and U.S. foreign and defense ministers held their third so-called “2+2 meeting,” which was the first such ministerial since Park Geun-hye became South Korea’s president in late 2012.
The day before, visiting South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel held the 46th United States-Republic of Korea (U.S.-ROK) Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), while on October 22, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, and the ROK Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Choi Yoon-hee, led the 39th U.S.-ROK Military Committee Meeting (MCM).
These meetings made several major decisions, such as deciding to maintain the current ROK-U.S. Combined Command arrangement under U.S. wartime leadership for at least the next decade as well as to expand their security partnership to address a wider range of functional and geographic issues.
However, they still need to take additional measures to counter North Korea’s aggressive posturing and its new asymmetric capabilities, including the DPRK’s possible development of a mobile nuclear-armed ICBMs.
The South Korean and U.S. ministers stressed their intent to keep their forces ready and strong.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who had said a few weeks earlier that the United States was prepared to reduce its military presence in South Korea if the North behaved less threatening, made sure to balance his previous remarks by emphasizing the converse—that the United States would continue its present force posture in Asia until North Korea “demonstrate[d] that it is serious about denuclearization, and we need to be certain that it is prepared to live up to its international obligations and abide by international norms of behavior.”
Hagel said that the United States would not make major reductions in the number and kind of forces stationed in South Korea.
In a separate Pentagon briefing on October 23, General Curtis Scaparrotti, Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, elaborated more on the North Korean threat.
After describing the DPRK regime’s main goals as securing its survival by obtaining recognition as a nuclear weapons state, Scaparrotti highlighted how the regime emphasizes the acquisition of “asymmetric capabilities” such as “several hundred ballistic missiles, one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles, a biological weapons research program, and the world’s largest special operations force, as well as an active cyber-warfare capability.”
Scaparrotti unexpectedly told one questioner that he believed that North Korea had achieved its long-sought goal of developing a miniaturized nuclear warhead to place on a long-range missile using a mobile missile launcher.
Such a weapons system is difficult to find and destroy due to its mobility but can inflict a devastating blow on whatever target is in range.
The question of whether North Korea has a long-range, nuclear-armed, mobile missile has been hotly debated within the U.S. intelligence community and among independent observers for at least a year.
Scaparrotti acknowledged that the DPRK has never displayed or tested such a system, though he noted that the Iranians and Pakistanis might have told the North Koreans how to do this.
The DPRK have surprised many observers by its rapid progress in launching a successful space satellite in December 2012 so soon after its previous launch in April of that year failed so spectacularly.
To counter these threats, Scaparrotti said that the ROK and U.S. forces have “enhanced our readiness in the areas of combined and joint command, control, communications, computers and intelligence, an alliance counter missile defense strategy, and the procurement of precision-guided munitions, ballistic missile defense systems, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms.”
The two governments have also endorsed the Obama administration’s general strategy of allocating more U.S. resources to Asia as well as the U.S. Army’s new Pacific Pathways” concept of rotating combat units to South Korea and other U.S. Asian allies and partners.
According to the SCM Communique, “the Secretary and the Minister reaffirmed that the rotational deployments of the U.S. forces with complete combat capabilities demonstrate the U.S. defense commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea and also contribute to enhancing the U.S.-ROK combined defense posture on the Peninsula.”
The Army believes that sending whole formations rather than individual soldiers enhances overall unit readiness and training.
The Army started rotating forces into South Korea in 2013, when it deployed the 4th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, to South Korea nine months.
In February and then October 2014, the Army sent the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, and later the 800-man 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, both based at from Fort Hood, Texas. The Army is planning to begin rotating brigade combat teams to the ROK in 2015.
In their October 23 SCM session, the two defense ministries, finally agreed after years of debate that conditions were not ripe to execute the planned 2015 transition of wartime operational control (OPCON) from the U.S.-led Combined Forces Command (CFC) to a new ROK forces-led combined defense command, yet to be named, which would still have a combined ROK-U.S. staff, a U.S. Deputy Commander, and a U.S. general officers heading the main U.S. military sub-commands.
The transfer would also return wartime OPCON of South Korean forces to ROK rather than U.S. command authority.
In May 2013, the Park administration formally requested a delay, citing the deteriorating security conditions caused by the North’s more aggressive behavior in recent years.
Although there are many examples, one need only cite the DPRK’s torpedoing of the ROK warship CHEONAN in 2010, its unprovoked cross-border artillery shelling of Yeon-pyeong Island later that year, its long-range missile launches in April and December 2012, and its third nuclear explosive test in February 2013, which was followed by months of threatening rhetoric against the United States and other countries.
Instead of setting a new date for a transfer, the two governments agreed “that the ROK will assume wartime OPCON when critical ROK and Alliance military capabilities are secured and the security environment on the Korean Peninsula and in the region is conducive to a stable OPCON transition.”
The ROK government later explained that this required meeting three core conditions:
- An improvement of the regional security environment,
- A strengthening of the South’s “critical” military capabilities to lead a combined defense,
- And the deployment of an effective ROK system for countering DPRK missile and nuclear attacks early in a conflict.
These critical capabilities include enhancing South Korea’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities; acquiring precision-guided munitions and their associated delivery systems; and improving South Korea’s capabilities for maneuver and network-centered warfare.
Han said that South Korea would aim to “secure the core military capabilities” for OPCON transition by the mid-2020s, when the missile defense and preemption systems would be deployed.
Although Han later acknowledged that any transfer would probably not occur before then, he denied that his government aimed to postpone it “indefinitely.”
The high costs of the needed capabilities–estimated at 50 trillion won, or almost US$50 billion–could present a major barrier.
- The KAMD and the Kill Chain would cost an estimated 17 trillion won;
- The project to develop a new ROK-made next-generation KF-X fighter plane could cost approximately 18 trillion won;
- Some 6 trillion won would be needed for building more warships such as Aegis destroyers and submarines;
- While buying more mid- to long-term ground-to-air missiles, multiple rocket launchers, and F-35A stealth fighters would account for the remaining costs.
In the interim, the ROK and U.S. armed forces are creating a new U.S.-ROK Combined Division whose peacetime combined staff would activate it in wartime.
As a deterrent and to enhance readiness, they also decided to keep various CPC headquarters elements in the Yongsan Garrison until OPCON transition occurs and the 210 Fire Brigade in its current location north of the Han River until South Korea had completed its counter-fire reinforcement plan designed to ensure a robust ROK artillery barrage during the early phases of any conflict.
As a result, they announced they would aim to replace the current Strategic Alliance 2015 Base Plan with a new base plan at next year’s SCM meeting.
But they remained committed to the Yongsan Relocation Plan and the Land Partnership Plan as well as the associated Joint Environmental Assessment Procedure.