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Years After War, South Korea, United States Examine Command Transfer

  • Kurt Achin

Military might used during the Korean War in 1950

Military might used during the Korean War in 1950

South Korea's military is very different from the one that needed help after the 1950 surprise attack that began the Korean War. South Korea and its ally, the United States, are preparing for a change that gives Seoul direct command of its own forces in the event of a renewed war. But recent events involving North Korea may have strengthened the case of those who want to put the brakes on this major shift in the military relationship.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries say they would fight a second Korean War, if it became necessary, side-by-side and seamlessly.

For decades, their alliance has deterred a repeat of the North Korean attack of June 25th, 1950.

Seoul has always agreed that U.S. forces would have command of South Korea's military if war re-ignites. But that is to change in April 2012, when Seoul assumes wartime operational control of its own forces, a step referred to as OPCON Transfer.

U.S. Forces in Korea Commander General Walter Sharp says South Korea's military is ready to take the leadership role.

"I think it really does send a huge signal to North Korea that the Republic of Korea military is so professional and so strong, the United States is willing to continue to fight in a supporting relationship with the same forces, but give the Republic of Korea the lead," Sharp said.

U.S. leaders say not much will change after OPCON Transfer, and 28-thousand U.S. troops will remain in South Korea.

But some security experts worry the OPCON plan may be premature, particularly because of signs of instability in North Korea. Its leader, Kim Jong II, is in questionable health after an apparent stroke in 2008. He is believed to be preparing a successor.

Disastrous currency reform policies last year brought the North's feeble economy to the brink of collapse. And investigators say a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean navy ship, the Cheonan.

Dan Pinkston is with the International Crisis Group.

"Under these conditions, where we see so much uncertainty with leadership succession, possible instability, we see no arms control, we see no confidence building measures, we see no disarmament, we see North Korea refusing to return to the six-party talks, we see the sinking of the Cheonan and potential clashes in the West Sea around the Northern Limit Line. So a lot of people are just saying this is just not the right time," Pinkston said.

Kim Kwang-shik is a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. He says recent surveys indicate growing concern among ordinary South Koreans.

He says OPCON Transfer has increasingly become a public issue as the actual day of the transfer is drawing near. More and more Koreans have begun to worry about their national security, he adds, and they question whether the year 2012 is appropriate.

U.S. officials say the topic is likely to come up when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak hosts President Obama at an international summit in Seoul later this year.