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The “Cheonan” Fallout: Erosion of Confidence

Preeti Nalwa was Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 07, 2010

    The discourse on the “Choenan” sinking has been dominated by the need to take appropriate and effective measures, both international and bilateral, which would adequately deter North Korea from repeating what is now being described as an “underwater terrorist attack”. The other and more important factor which has not been highlighted is the military unpreparedness of South Korea to either detect or counter such surprise attacks. The Cheonan incident, shockingly, has brought to the fore the vulnerability of the South Korean naval defences despite the increased military spending and immense investment made in annual exercises, drills, training, equipment and refining war plans with the United States, South Korea’s alliance partner since the Mutual Defence Treaty was established in 1954. The Cheonan assault has revealed to the South that the threat from North Korea is still ominous and capable of delivering unexpected damage. More importantly, North Korea’s menacing behaviour has demonstrated the investment it has made in its asymmetric capabilities i.e. stealthy and hard-to-detect technologies.

    The real threat posed by the Cheonan episode led President Myung-bak Lee to delay the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) over South Korean troops from the United States, originally scheduled for April 17, 2012. According to Lee Sang-woo “The OPCON should be transferred to us someday when we are capable of commanding a war independently.” Lee is the head of the Commission for National Security Review that was instituted precisely because of the Cheonan sinking. The Commission was tasked with reviewing South Korea's defence posture and mapping out reform measures. President Lee has also decided to further strengthen the U.S.-Korean military alliance. In an address to the nation on 24 May 2010, President Lee reassured his people, lest they lose confidence in his government, that “The discipline of the armed forces will be re-established, military reform efforts will be expedited and combat capabilities will be reinforced drastically.” To show solidarity with South Korea, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the White House have declared that U.S. forces in South Korea had been directed to “coordinate closely with their Korean counterparts to ensure readiness and to deter future aggression.”

    The OPCON transfer was agreed upon by the two countries in 2007 and it entails the dismantling of the ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC). The ROK defence minister Kim Jang-Soo and U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates had agreed to a future command structure at the 38th Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in 2006, and the decision was later announced in February 2007. In 1994, peacetime (Armistice period) Operational Control (OPCON) of selected ROK Army Forces was transferred from the U.S. to the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The former South Korean President Moo-Hyun Roh had made the issue of retaking wartime OPCON from the U.S. in his presidential campaign as the condition which would restore true national sovereignty. He later followed it up as an agenda in his administration for South Korea’s military sovereignty.

    However, sceptics both in the U.S. and South Korea had looked upon the agreement with strong concern believing that the planned OPCON transfer would weaken ROK-US combined deterrence capability and would send a wrong signal to North Korea. According to them, the critical question was whether South Korea would be able to respond to North Korea’s unconventional military capability including weapons of mass destruction. To North Korea, ROK-US OPCON transfer would also indicate strategic weakness in command and control operations between the two nations. Critics argue that the requirement of seamless command-and-control systems between the military leaders from both countries would be seriously affected under the strained battle conditions. A resolution opposing OPCON transfer before resolving North Korea’s nuclear problem was also adopted at the Defence Committee of National Assembly on December 22, 2006.

    The Ballistic Missile Defence Review (BMDR) released by the U.S on February 1, 2010 says that “sooner or later North Korea will have a successful test of its TD-2 and, if there are no major changes in its national security strategy in the next decade, it will be able to mate a nuclear warhead to a proven delivery system.”1 The fact that North Korea has persistently demonstrated its nuclear ambitions and continues to develop long-range missiles is of particular concern to critics opposed to the OPCON transfer. North Korea conducted seven ballistic missile launches on July 4–5, 2006 and a nuclear test in October the same year. It successfully tested six mobile theatre ballistic missiles, demonstrating a capability to target the US and allied forces in South Korea and Japan. On July 3–4, 2009, it again launched seven ballistic missiles followed by a nuclear test in May 2009. North Korea has also developed an advanced solid-propellant short-range ballistic missile (SRBM).2 Critics say that in view of the increasing qualitative threat from North Korea, the OPCON transfer would be a dangerous move that lacks pragmatism. The Cheonan experience has forcefully reinforced these concerns.

    The function of CFC is that in a situation of war, an American general would command active-duty troops from both countries. This means a command of about 600,000 South Korean troops, additional U.S. troops arriving from outside and the activation of up to 3.5 million South Korean regular reserves. The transfer of OPCON would create two separate commands run respectively by the United States and South Korea, which would be linked by liaison officers and coordination centres and cells. However, the United States would support the South Korean command during wartime, but American troops would remain under the control of a US general.

    A high ranking military source has said that “Our two countries have formed a consensus that the transfer of the wartime operational control, scheduled for April 2012, should be pushed back to effectively handle crises on the Korean Peninsula.”3 It is also reported that Presidents Lee and Obama could announce a delay in the transfer of wartime command during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Summit in Toronto, Canada to be held from June 26 to 27, 2010.

    North Korea has always opposed the stationing of U.S. forces in South Korea and resented the regional security mechanism in Northeast Asia based on the “hegemonic stability” of US-led bilateral alliances. It considers US extended deterrence as extremely offensive and threatening to its regime and sovereignty. The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review released on April 6, 2010 excluded North Korea from its negative security assurance, which implies the possibility of a US pre-emptive nuclear strike against it. North Korea’s provocative behaviour works at cross-purpose to its objective of a neutral external security environment. Its unpredictable action drives both South Korea and Japan to lean more on the US security alliance.

    The current turn of events in these two countries amply demonstrates this. In Japan, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned on June 2, 2010 less than nine months after leading the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to victory on the campaign pledge to move the U.S. military base of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of Okinawa. He apologized for not keeping his promise to move the US base and thus ease the burden of residents who had long complained about aircraft noise, pollution and crime associated with the heavy American military presence. In his resignation speech, Hatoyama said that “we must sustain trust between Japan and the United States”. Citing the sinking of the South Korean warship, he said that it shows “security has not been secured in Northeast Asia.”4 The Acting Governor Mike Cruz in Guam said that “Recent North Korean aggression has demonstrated the vital importance of the American-Japanese alliance in this region of the world. Without it the Asia Pacific Rim would be left unguarded and unsafe. The freedom peace and safety we enjoy is extremely fragile.”

    North Korea’s unpredictable behaviour keeps the vicious cycle of security dilemma in operation and consequently, it continues to remain isolated from the international community. It erodes the confidence of the non-nuclear states in their self-defence infrastructure and ensures the continuation of the US military footprint in East Asia.