The Elephant in the Room? North Korea and the Myth of ROK/U.S. “OPCON Transfer”

Army Gen Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. James Thurman, at the demilitarized zone inSouth Korea on Nov. 11, 2012.  DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen

This article was featured in GSSR Vol. 1 Issue 2.

By David S. Maxwell

In light of the actions of the Kim Family Regime over the past year, the election of a new President of the Republic of Korea (ROK), and the reelection of the U.S. President, it is an appropriate time to take a critical look at the military strategy of the ROK/U.S. Alliance and ask some difficult questions, the most important being: Should the ROK/U.S. Alliance continue the so-called “OPCON transfer” – which is actually the dissolution of the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) – in the face of the continued existential threat posed to ROK by North Korea? Toward this end, this essay suggests various modifications of ROK/U.S. Alliance strategy, including an argument as to why the ROK/U.S. CFC should not be dissolved.

The first action that should be taken by the Alliance is for both Presidents in their first meeting on May 7, 2013 to reaffirm the 2009 Joint Vision Statement, which established both countries’ desired strategic end state as the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula.[1] Although the degree to which unification will be peaceful will be dictated by North Korea’s decisions and actions, it is nonetheless imperative that the end state of unification be articulated in both word and deed. This provides the strategic guidance for all future Alliance actions.

My most important military recommendation is to cease the OPCON transfer and transformation process as it is currently planned. The ROK/U.S. CFC must remain intact.  The ROK/U.S. CFC is the key to deterring North Korea. It must remain the foundation of the Alliance, and support all other actions by the instruments of national power. Without the demonstrated strength of this military organization, the North is unlikely to remain deterred from large-scale conflict as it has been for the past six decades. Furthermore, this action would provide one of the strategic sticks that South Korean President Park Geun-hye is looking for to support the implementation of her new policy of “trustpolitik.”[2]

Halting the transformation process will not only send an extremely important and powerful message to the North, but will also likely result in conserving resources by both the ROK and U.S. governments. Although there are many sunk costs with the development of facilities in Camp Humphreys and other installations in South Korea, an immediate decision to suspend the process could allow both the ROK and U.S. governments to shift resources to invest in critical military capabilities. For the ROK, rather than investing in independent warfighting capabilities that the U.S. military already possesses, it could focus its resources on developing its critical capabilities and building on its strengths, particularly in its ground maneuver forces that are so critical to success in confronting either regime collapse in the North or prosecuting a war with it.

Although the ROK/U.S. CFC should remain intact[3], there is one action that should be taken to transform it. In 2015, rather than dissolving the ROK/U.S. CFC, a South Korean General should take command with a U.S. General as Deputy Commander. This will send a very important signal to the North and the region, and will be critically important if and when the ROK/U.S. CFC operates in North Korea during collapse or war; it will allow unification efforts to proceed with ROK military leadership in command, thus providing long-term legitimacy for operations within the north of the Peninsula.

Some will argue that the U.S. should never agree to allow its forces to be under foreign command. However, due to the structure of the Alliance, the Korean commander of the ROK/U.S. CFC would answer to the Military Committee, from which he would receive strategic guidance and direction, just as would the current U.S. military commander. This is why the “OPCON transfer” is a myth. The Military Committee consists of both ROK and U.S. National Command and Military Authorities (NCMA).  The ROK and U.S. governments in effect exercise coequal operational control of the combined warfighting forces. They do so now with a U.S. commander and they would continue to do so with a Korean commander.

Although it may seem counterintuitive to some, a Korean commander would further reinforce the perception of a strong Alliance, as the U.S. would be stating through its actions that it has full trust and faith in the leadership of a Korean commander. It would also illustrate how the Alliance has evolved to a level of coequal partnership, with each nation bringing the strengths of their respective military forces to the command, thereby also overcoming the other’s weaknesses.

Another action to reinforce the strength of the Alliance as well as enhance the interoperability of ROK/U.S. forces would be to return U.S. forces to active patrolling of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which was suspended in the 1990s. However, rather than establish a U.S. sector, like that which previously surrounded the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom, U.S. forces would be integrated on a rotating basis throughout the entire 250 kilometers of the DMZ.[4] This would send a powerful message of Alliance resolve. It would also provide an excellent training opportunity for U.S. ground combat forces. Whether U.S. forces are permanently stationed there for one year or a rotation program is implemented, they would have a day-to-day combat patrolling mission focus. In this scenario, there would be the added benefit that U.S. ground combat forces departing ROK would be at a high state of small unit combat readiness. This would serve the U.S. Army well in a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan operational environment.

The U.S. must also continue to improve execution of and support for the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), the U.S.-led initiative of the international community focused on preventing North Korea from proliferating weapons of mass destruction (WMD), missiles, and associated technology. The U.S. must encourage other nations to join the initiative and should assist participants in executing operations to interdict North Korean weapons proliferation efforts. Law enforcement and military capabilities must be brought to bear on this problem. Effective PSI operations can put immense pressure on the regime and cut it off from a significant amount of hard currency gained through weapons proliferation. Again, this can provide another strategic stick to support President Park’s policy of “trustpolitik.”

The ROK/U.S. Military Alliance should also focus efforts on a comprehensive influence campaign to target multiple audiences in North Korea. It should use the full range of media and information technologies available to provide information to the general population in order to lay the groundwork for operations in the complex post-war or post-regime collapse environment in which ROK/U.S. Alliance forces will likely operate. Defector organizations with their limited resources have shown that it is possible to get large amounts of information into North Korea; these efforts should be supported and expanded. An influence campaign must target the regime’s second-tier leadership, in order to influence them to maintain the coherency of the security forces to try to prevent both the loss of control of WMD as well as the rise of a resistance force during or after war or regime collapse. The second-tier leadership will be critical in the unification process, and deliberate plans to coerce and/or co-opt them must be in place.

The ROK/U.S. Alliance must continue to focus attention on the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Kim Family Regime, and should maintain pressure on the regime in all available venues to draw attention to the oppression of the North Korean people. Together, the ROK and U.S. governments should work to establish and lead a community of interest that will focus on the suffering of North Koreans and maintain international visibility on the human rights atrocities committed by the Kim Family Regime.

Finally, U.S. and ROK national intelligence services, diplomats, and law enforcement agencies, ideally in cooperation with other members of the international community, must work to interdict the regime’s so-called “Department 39”, which is responsible for the regime’s global network of illicit activities that produces the hard currency and luxury goods that keep it in power. A global effort must be made to target this network and coerce, co-opt, and, when necessary, incarcerate its members. Co-opting members could provide for a wealth of intelligence information about the regime. Co-opted members could also be employed in a post-war or post-collapse scenario.

Recent talks in Washington between ROK and U.S. defense officials affirmed that the transformation process is on track and will be executed in accordance with the current plan.[5] However, U.S. Ambassador to Korea Sung Kim also recently and realistically stated that the transformation would not occur if the ROK military is not ready in 2015.[6] With the election of President Park, there is an opportunity to undertake a realistic assessment of the way ahead for the ROK/U.S. Military Alliance.

The North poses an existential threat to the ROK, and whatever happens on the Korean Peninsula will have global repercussions. To be prepared for war or regime collapse and, more importantly, to deal with the aftermath, the Alliance must begin active preparations now and cease squandering scarce resources on transformation. Most importantly, the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command should not be dissolved but should instead be strengthened. While no one can predict what will eventually happen on the Peninsula, the two most dangerous scenarios, war and regime collapse, are very real possibilities, and the ROK/U.S. Military Alliance will be the most important element of these two countries’ national power that will determine the outcome. The actions of the ROK/U.S. CFC will lay the foundation for the eventual unification of the Korean peninsula, which is the only end state that can bring peace and stability to Northeast Asia. If the U.S. is serious about rebalancing toward Asia, it must focus its efforts on the most dangerous place in the region.

David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.  He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College.  He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College and the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, and the National War College, National Defense University.

[1] “Joint Vision for the Alliance of the United States of America and the Republic of Korea,”,June 16, 2009,
[2]Park Geun-hye, “A New Kind of Korea: Building Trust Between Seoul and Pyongyang,” Foreign Affairs, 90 (5) (September/October 2011),
[3] “USFK Suggests Keeping Combined Forces Command,”, June 14, 2012,
[4] “Joint Security Area/Panmunjom,”, accessed April 18, 2012,
[5] “Joint Statement of The Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue,” U.S. Department of Defense, February 22, 2013,
[6] “US seeks to come up with best possible response to N. Korea’s nuclear test,” Yonhap News Agency, February 20, 2013,


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