How the Afghanistan Withdrawal Looks from South Korea, America’s Other ‘Forever War’

20 Aug

How the Afghanistan Withdrawal Looks from South Korea, America’s Other ‘Forever War’

U.S. President Joe Biden this week was asked what the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan means for Washington’s other global military commitments. In response, Biden stressed the “fundamental difference” between Afghanistan and places like South Korea, where the U.S. also has a major troop presence. It would be hard, if not impossible, to find a South Korean who disagrees with that assessment. There are obvious differences between Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest and least-developed countries, and South Korea, a stable democracy and U.S. treaty ally that has the world’s 10th largest economy and US Lt. Col. Douglas Hayes and Republic of Korea Army Col. Seong Ik Sung discuss the progress of a coordinated, joint artillery exercise May 10, 2016. (US Army photo)Sovereignty debateAnother point of alliance tension is whether and at what speed South Korea should regain more control of its forces during a hypothetical war.In 1950, South Korea handed command authority of its troops to the U.S. in order to fend off a North Korean attack during the early stages of the Korean War. The U.S. retained that authority until 1994, when South Korea assumed peacetime “operational control” of its forces.Under the current arrangement, the U.S. would still control certain aspects of South Korea’s military if war broke out. Some left-leaning South Korean politicians object to that prospect and want the arrangement to be changed as soon as possible. Song Young-gil, who heads South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party, said the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is the latest evidence Seoul should speed up the so-called “OPCON transition.” “If you have no experience in planning and executing your own operations, you do not know what kind of trouble you will face as a nation,” Song said in a Facebook post.Chun, the former lieutenant-general, disagreed. Such a transition, he said, could jeopardize the U.S.-South Korea alliance, ultimately making South Korea less safe.“South Koreans need to realize that if we have OPCON transition there’ll be a possibility of a disconnect between the two allied forces who are right now attached at the hip,” Chun said. The issue already causes friction in the U.S.-South Korea relationship, though mostly beneath the surface. The U.S. and South Korea agreed in 2018 to begin a three-stage process for assessing whether Seoul is ready to regain wartime control. South Korean President Moon Jae-in says he would like to complete the transfer by the end of his term in May 2022. U.S. officials, however, warn against imposing a time limit, saying the transition should instead be conditions-based.Any attempt to rush the issue will “do damage to the relationship we have right now,” Chun said. “And the relationship we have right now is pretty good,” he added. Ties growingIn fact, the U.S.-South Korea alliance has recently expanded to focus on other regional and global issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and China’s growing assertiveness.Many South Korean analysts believe the Korean peninsula is a core national interest for the United States. Opinion polls suggest broad public support in both countries for the U.S. troop presence. There are no signs that will change, especially as the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies.“It’s pretty clear that the U.S. has tried to move from the Middle East to focus on the so-called Indo-Pacific area,” Park said, adding that “South Korea is one of the, if not the most, important allies in this region.”

SJ

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