Leadership: Fear Of Failure In Korea


March 17, 2010: Two years ago, South Korea and the U.S. agreed on the details of how South Korea would eventually take over command of wartime military operations in South Korea. The switch would take place in 2012. As part of that switch, South Korea had to acquire additional communications capabilities, software and officers (both staff and command) that would enable them to run the entire operation.

Now the South Koreans are having second thoughts. They are pleading "technical problems," but this is just a smokescreen to hide the real reason. South Korea believes that by leaving a U.S. commander in charge, they are assured that the U.S. will come to their aid in the event of an attempted invasion by North Korea, or problems with China.

As North Korea stumbles ever closer to collapse (and an uncertain reaction from China to the prospect of Korea being unified as a democracy), South Koreans are upset with American talk about how South Korea can handle any military emergency in the neighborhood. The U.S. insists that the South Koreans will be able, technically, to take over on schedule. But if the South Korean political leadership says no, well, things could get sticky.

In preparation for the switch, the U.S. and South Korea ran a series of wargames, where the South Koreans practiced being in charge. Everything went better than expected, but some problems were encountered. There were South Korean information systems, including databases, that did not work well with their American counterparts. In addition to the wargames, there are also political games. Procedures are being worked out to coordinate how the two nations will handle the escalation that would lead to a war. Even if the North Koreans execute the dreaded surprise attack, the two nations have to be on the same page when it comes to mobilizing and moving additional military and diplomatic resources towards the war effort. The South Koreans have to have an idea of what additional forces the U.S. could, or would, provide, and when. The U.S. has to be kept informed of South Korean strategy, because what the South Korean generals do is a matter of life or death for the American forces involved. On reflection, many South Korean leaders have concluded that they might be better off if the Americans remained in charge. That way, if things went wrong, they could blame the foreigners. If things went right, then everyone is a hero.

Taking orders from South Korean generals is no big deal for Americans. The United States has long practiced operating as part of a NATO force in Europe, including having American units subordinate to foreign commanders. During the Cold War, the NATO alliance involved armed forces from over a dozen nations operating together. To make that happen with a minimum of confusion and errors, all NATO members spent decades establishing standards for command, communications, logistics and diplomacy. In South Korea, while there has long been a similar standardization with the U.S., the former subordinates are finding that even more standardization and synchronization is required if South Korea is to switch roles and be in charge. It's not a simple or quick process. But the South Koreans seemed on track to dealing with all these details. All but one, the political risk to take charge, and the responsibility that goes with it.




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