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The Peninsula

The ROK-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty at 60 Years: Relevant Now and in the Future

Published October 1, 2013
Category: South Korea

By David S. Maxwell

As we celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the 1953 ROK/U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty we should keep in mind that celebrate is the right word for Koreans and Americans to attach to this milestone.  We can proudly look back on its success. In so doing we should realize that it remains relevant today and the six articles with just 460 words (in the English translation) that make up the treaty remain necessary to support the strategic interests of the ROK and U.S. for the foreseeable future (and per Article VI, indefinitely unless terminated by either party with one year’s notice).

The treaty’s most important contribution is that it has allowed the ROK and U.S. to institute an evolving security arrangement that has deterred war for the past sixty years.  While North Korea and the Kim family regime built a huge military, sought nuclear weapons, and conducted numerous provocations to undermine the ROK, the ROK/U.S. alliance developed superior capabilities that have effectively prevented a resumption of hostilities that were temporarily suspended with the 1953 Armistice Agreement.

The treaty bought time and provided space for the Republic of Korea to create and the world to experience the “Miracle on the Han” with Korea becoming one of the leading economies in the world, with a highly developed industrial base providing innovative technology, goods and services as well as making cutting edge cultural contributions to the global community. Perhaps most important it provided the opportunity for the ROK to develop politically into one of the most vibrant democracies in the free world.

The ROK and U.S. militaries’ combined operational capabilities have evolved over the past sixty years.  There is no bi-lateral alliance in the world with a more interoperable military force and a more integrated command and control organization than the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command.  ROK and U.S. forces have served together in off-peninsula locations as well from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan further enhancing the strength of the alliance.

The past 60 years have not been without difficulty and controversy.  From a long history of North Korean provocations to incidents that caused alliance friction from Kwangju to the tragic Highway 56 incident to perceptions of the United States military dominating the military command and occupying Korean territory, all have tested the alliance and helped make the alliance stronger than ever today.  Currently there are complex ongoing negotiations regarding burden sharing and the so-called OPCON transfer.  In order to achieve OPCON transfer the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command must be dissolved and two separate national war fighting commands must be established.   However, in July the ROK Minister of Defense requested a second delay to the 2015 date.

As we look at the current state of the alliance and think about the way ahead we should consider just what the ROK and U.S. militaries must prepare for and be able to do in order to continue to support the Mutual Defense Treaty:

1.  Deter attack from North Korea and if deterrence fails fight and win.

2.  Prepare for war and North Korean regime collapse.

3.  Maintain a combined readiness posture to respond to North Korean provocations as well as deter and defend against war and deal with regime collapse.

4.  Support the unification of Korea.

Given the threats from the North, the fiscal realities facing both the ROK and U.S., and the tasks required to support the Mutual Defense Treaty the question is how should the military alliance transform to best support the strategic objectives of the ROK and U.S.?

First, in order to maintain the most effective and efficient military capability I recommend that the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command not be dissolved in 2015 or until there is no longer a threat from the North.  However, in 2015 command should shift to a ROK general officer with a U.S. general officer as the deputy.  We should recall that Article III of the Mutual Defense Treaty does not specify command relationships or structure, but provides wide latitude so that military professionals may recommend to the political leaders of both nations the best way to organize military forces to achieve mutual objectives:

“Separately and jointly, by self help and mutual aid, the Parties will maintain and develop appropriate means to deter armed attack and will take suitable measures in consultation and agreement to implement this Treaty and to further its purposes…” (emphasis added)

Under the treaty the command can be dissolved, the status quo can be maintained, or a ROK general officer can be put in command if both nations agree.  I would argue that the most appropriate means include maintaining the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command.

Second, I recommend that the command should remain in Seoul.  However, the U.S. Army Garrison at Yongsan should revert to the control of the ROK military and be re-established as a regular ROK military base with the combined command as a tenant organization.  This will reduce costs that are currently associated with the move of the U.S. command to Pyongtaek and will also counter the political friction caused by the perception that the U.S. military is occupying Seoul.  There are numerous other recommendations for transforming the alliance as well, such as maintaining the 2nd Infantry Division in forward locations and integrating U.S. ground combat forces on the DMZ to conduct routine armistice patrolling with ROK forces.

The 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty has served the ROK and U.S. well.  Its value is in its simplicity and clarity that allows the ROK and U.S. to act in concert to protect mutual interests while allowing both to transform their militaries as conditions change.  It has stood the test of time and will continue to serve both nations well as long as there are threats to both nations’ security and prosperity.

David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.  He is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel with five tours of duty in the Republic of Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division, the Special Operations Command, and the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command.

Photo from #PACOM’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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