By Wu Minwen
On the morning of July 2, Gen. Paul La Camera took over ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC) and U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) at a ceremony held at Camp Humphreys, the headquarters of USFK in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi-do of ROK officially taking charge of all American troops stationed in ROK as well as ROK-US Combined Forces. The ROK-US CFC is always headed up by an American commander with his ROK counterpart as deputy commander. In other words, ROK troops are commanded by the American commander.
This division of power can be traced back to the period of the Korean War. When the Cold War ended, the international situation was drastically changed, so was the situation in East Asia. In the mounting protest by ROK residents against American troops stationed in their country, the two countries reached an agreement in 1994 for the ROK to take back the command of peacetime operations from the US side. Since then, every ROK administration, from Roh Mu-Hyun and Lee Myung-bak to Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in, negotiated with Washington about the wartime command of ROK troops, but the deadline of handing over the command has been postponed over and over.
The US has taken an unmistaken “passive and non-cooperative” attitude toward the handover of wartime command because, with the implementation of its “Indo-Pacific Strategy”, it has seen changes in ROK’s geopolitical value and the wartime command of ROK troops.
Although the quadrilateral mechanism doesn’t include ROK, that doesn’t mean it is not important in the Indo-Pacific strategy. The military alliance between Seoul and Washington began during WWII and the Korean War. Even today, the Korean Peninsula is in a state of “truce” as the main parties to that war still haven’t signed a peace agreement, which means, theoretically, the war isn’t over. The US has deployed the “THAAD” system in ROK to monitor northeast and northern China, and the American military base in ROK is a forward position from which troops can reach China’s Yellow Sea, Bohai Sea, East China Sea and southeastern coastal areas in the shortest time.
Since the Korean War, the US-ROK military alliance has been the most important barrier to ROK’s security. The country not only needs America’s “nuclear protection”, but also highly relies on the hi-tech military equipment and intelligence provided by the US. Its national defense system would be like a sieve without America’s Global Hawk, E-8C reconnaissance plane, F-35B fighter and other hi-tech devices.
After ROK President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden met at the White House on May 21 this year, the joint statement issued by the two countries mentioned the so-called importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait for the first time. This move, which crossed the bottom line for China, was partly the result of Biden’s pressuring and partly a reflection of Seoul’s determination to defend the bilateral alliance. In return, Washington not only scrapped the restriction for ROK to launch missiles with a range of more than 180km and a warhead weighing more than 500kg but also allowed it to launch submarine-based missiles. In early July, ROK successfully launched a submarine-based missile and became the eighth country worldwide to master that technology.
On July 5, the ROK military sent the destroyer Wang Geon (DDH-978), Lynx helicopter, three high-speed boats and more than 200 naval officers to participate in the Pacific Vanguard joint maritime exercise led by US Navy’s 7th Fleet. Although Seoul claimed to not target any third country, America’s China-targeting “Indo-Pacific Strategy” wouldn’t change a bit because of ROK’s participation.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Washington and Seoul began negotiating the transfer of wartime command of ROK troops in 1994, but no decisive progress has been made partly because their alliance is not based on equality, in which Seoul doesn’t really have much say, and partly because ROK itself isn’t that assertive or insistent either. For the US, losing command of ROK troops would impair its position in Northeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific Strategy; for ROK, while it feels chagrin at being overwhelmed or pressured by the US, it also enjoys the super power’s protection.
Now Paul LaCamera has just assumed the role as commander of the CFC, and Moon Jae-in’s term is about to expire, and a recent poll shows him and his political rival taking turns in the top spot on the support tally. The political prospects in ROK may make it hard for the country to take back its military command, not to mention that its request doesn’t really matter if Uncle Sam simply refuses to give in.
In general, the ROK is vital for the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy. Although it has close economic ties with China and has been cautious not to upset this strong neighbor, it has always been wary of China’s rise. Judging from its frequent interactions with the US recently, ROK can no longer conceal such wariness and has no will to either.
(The author is from the College of Information and Communication, PLA National University of Defense Technology)
Disclaimer: This article is originally published on the news.youth.cn, and is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of www.naru10.com.