1. Movements for strengthening the United Nations Command’s functions before transferring wartime operational control
Beginning on August 11 this year, in order to verify the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Armed Forces, preparations are being made for the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) to ROK in the future, and focus is being directed to table-top exercises using computers. The ”US-ROK Combined Command Post Training” has begun. In June this year, the US Secretary of Defense and the ROK Ministry of National Defense formally made a decision by taking command of a Korean general in the newly created future Combined Forces Command (fCFC). Before the transfer, the ROK Armed Forces had to go through three verification stages, including this time, to see if it has the ability to exercise command. This gradual progress toward the OPCON transfer until 2022 has been smooth.
While the process of transferring OPCON has progressed steadily, the movement to strengthen the functions of the United Nations Command (UNC) has become clearer. In July last year, the Canadian Army Lieutenant General Wayne D. Eyre was appointed as the first non-US Deputy Commander since the UNC was founded in 1950—a history of 68 years. In July this year, Deputy Commander Eyre changed to Royal Australian Navy Vice Admiral Stuart Mayer. As a result, the UNC Deputy Commander was appointed from a non-US army.
Originally, in addition to the commander of the United States Forces Korea (USFK), the Commander of the UNC, who also serves as the commander of the Combined Forces, had many duties.
Therefore, one could say that the role of Deputy Commander forms a large part of the duties carried out by Commander of the UNC during peacetime. In the past year, former Commander General Vincent K. Brooks and present Commander General Robert B. Abrams did not appear in public as UN Commanders, whereas former Deputy Commander Eyre did appear as a leader in terms of public relations in the UNC. One day before the “UN Day” of October 24, 2018, a press release was put out with the following announcement: “The United Nations Command in Korea is observing United Nations Day today by highlighting recent historically significant events such as service member remains return and supporting international diplomacy.” Furthermore, in February this year, according to an interview with the Chosun Ilbo, he said, “The UNC will be maintained after the end of the Korean War, and the workforce will become twice or thrice as large.” In the midst of the rumors surrounding the conclusion of the Korean War and in anticipation of the North-South reconciliatory mood and the US-North Korea summit meeting, former Deputy Commander Eyre consistently explained the significance of the UNC. In addition to the Deputy Commander, in August of last year, U.S. Army Major General Mark Gillette was appointed as the Chief of Staff at the UNC; he was also appointed exclusively as a USFK officer. The UNC’s personnel movement is conspicuous.
In May this year, it was found that the US side was trying to relax the existing UN qualification requirements for sending states by dispatching German Army liaison officers to the UNC without notifying the South Korean side. It is also said that the South Korean government refused it.1 In addition, through the CFC, the US requested the South Korean Ministry of National Defense to have at least 20 South Korean military officers in 99 command personnel posts during peacetime. In response to this request, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense only stated that the issue was “under consideration.”
Such expansions in terms of UNC functions are not limited to personnel increases. During a meeting with the Minister of National Defense Chung Kyung-Doo, the USFK Commander Gen. Abrams put in a request for the relocation of CFC from the South Korean capital Seoul to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, where the UNC and the USFK Command are located. Later, this suggestion was officially implemented at the US-ROK Defense ministerial meeting held on June 3, 2019. In the future, all three headquarters will be concentrated at Camp Humphreys in the south of Seoul; this move is expected to make communications between the USFK, the ROK Armed Forces, and the UNC smoother and faster in the event of an emergency.
2. The South Korean government’s suspicions regarding the US movements
The South Korean government is suspicious that the U.S. military units under direct control may be limited; there is also the suspicion that the ROK general, who is the Commander of the fCFC, may request the US general, who is the deputy commander, for U.S. military reinforcements necessary for expanding the battle even though the OPCON has been transferred to its own country. The Moon Jae-in administration may want to avoid a situation where the new command structure of the Combined Forces of the US and South Korea could be watered down by the OPCON transfer, and the US military forces could take the initiative through the UNC.
Thus far, from what I have heard from South Korean experts, the most promising form is expected to be one where the future US-ROK combined forces command system will include a four-star US general who will also serve as the commander of the USFK and the UNC; furthermore, it is hoped that a four-star Korean and a three-star US general will be able to serve as the Commander and the Deputy Commander of the fCFC, respectively. This arrangement fulfills a major political promise between the US and South Korea—that a general from the ROK Armed Forces will command the fCFC and thus fulfill the government’s commitment to the people. However, in actual contingency, the US commander of the UNC and USFK will be able to request reinforcements from the commander of the Indo-Pacific Command while continuing to command the multinational forces participating under the UNC. As a result, the US military plays a dominant role in wartime situations in this region.
Certainly, the issue of transferring OPCON to South Korea and the strengthening of the UNC’s functions are not just a matter for the US-ROK alliance. With a China-targeted deterrence standpoint in mind, a new multinational military framework is being created—one that takes full advantage of the UNC’s framework, which is led by the US military. In addition, the once anticipated future war has now rapidly transformed into a multi-domain battle that is fundamentally different from the Korean War (1950-53). A qualitative change has been occurring in the US forward deployed military forces. For example, a new Air and Space Operations Center (AOC) was established at the Yokota Air base by the United States Forces Japan (USFJ); it was stated that operational control could be granted to the US Air Force in Japan under certain conditions during war.
The Korean side remains concerned that Japan will become involved in the operations of the UNC.
Specifically, a major issue is the participation of Self-Defense Forces (SDF) personnel in the UNC;
they will now be involved in the command during peacetime, and this will allow Japan to participate in future military operations in the Korean Peninsula. The 2019 Korean version of the “Strategic Digest,” a public document released every year by the USFK (released in May, 2019), states, “The UNC continues to provide support and force cooperation with Japan in the event of a crisis. “The appearance of the words “support and force cooperation with Japan” for the first time in this document created much speculation in South Korea that “Japan may become a force-providing country,” but apparently the truth seems to be due to a mistranslation of the Korean version.
3. The Japanese government cannot formulate a clear strategy for causing rapid changes in the security system of the Korean Peninsula
At present, the Japanese policy side and the SDF seem to have no idea about any chances of SDF participating in the UNC. Instead, it seems to be at the stage of thinking about how to tackle major changes in the security system of the Korean peninsula, which are directly linked to its own national security. The current situation in Japan can be glimpsed from certain remarks made by senior government officials:
We recognize that finding ways to ensure the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula, including the condition of the UN forces, is a major discussion issue among concerned countries, including Japan.
In the diplomatic context, Japan-China relations have been accelerating and improving at a great speed, even as the US-China conflict increases. The Abe administration is looking forward to Xi Jinping’s visit, which is scheduled to take place in the spring of next year; Japan’s real intention must be to avoid overly stimulating China. It may be difficult to produce a medium- to long-term strategy on the Korean Peninsula for a short-term policy outcome that will look ahead to the conclusion of the Abe administration term. At the same time, Japan is under pressure to establish a defense system that can respond more flexibly to the changing situation in the region, which is becoming opaquer in conjunction with the movement of the US military forces.
1 This is a working paper for the 4th International Seminar on China-Japan-ROK Security Cooperation, organized by the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing on October 19, 2019.