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By Richard Halloran

Posted on: Sunday, February 14, 2010

S. Korea jittery over command issue

 • War widows still waiting

The United States and South Korea are headed toward a collision in a dispute over whether American or South Korean officers should command their combined forces if war breaks out on the Korean peninsula. The U.S. says it should be Koreans; the Koreans agree but argue "not yet."

Moreover, the U.S. has informed the Koreans that American forces in Korea, while prepared to help South Korea defend itself against North Korea, have started to focus on missions outside the Korean peninsula in East Asia and around the world. The Koreans have expressed misgivings, fearing the U.S. will abandon Korea.

Gen. Walter Sharp, who commands U.S. forces in Korea (USFK), has given speeches lately in which he has reiterated the U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea, South Korea's formal name. At the same time, the general has said U.S. forces in Korea would be regionally engaged and globally deployed in the future. Other officers have underscored planning and basing for "expeditionary operations."

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 across the narrow strait between the two countries are pleading with the Americans, "don't go away and forsake us."

Another difference: The dispute in Japan has been noisy and public, while that in Korea 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 United Nations, 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 U.S. is seeking "strategic flexibility" for the American contingent in Korea so that U.S. troops could deploy elsewhere, the U.S. has insisted that South Korea take command of its forces in wartime. The U.S. will take a secondary role as a supporting force.

"It is the next logical step in the evolution of the alliance," said USFK spokesman Col. Jane Crichton.

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

A Korean official argues that the transfer should be postponed by at least two years. An American think tank official, who deals often with Koreans, said, "I don't know a Korean officer who does not want the transfer to be postponed."

A senior U.S. officer experienced in Asia noted the Korean opposition but insisted that the planned transfer go ahead.

The USFK spokeswoman said that the change "has created mixed feelings: well-deserved pride in the ROK military forces but fear that this change will somehow result in a weaker defense position."

"While we understand this concern, that will not be the case," she said. "The ROK military is a highly capable and professional force and their military leadership is outstanding. They are ready for this new opportunity."

U.S. officers with access to intelligence who asked not to be named say North Korea's armed forces are so bad that the South Koreans could surely defeat them.

"The damage would be awful," said one, "but they will lose. Absolutely, they will lose."