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U.S. suggests wider crisis role for Korea

Seoul’s help with operations beyond the peninsula is proposed
Oct 30,2019
Washington recently proposed expanding the scope of its combined crisis management operations with Seoul to go beyond the Korean Peninsula and deal with U.S. contingencies.

The proposal came as Seoul and Washington begin discussions on new roles for each side when dealing with contingencies after the transfer of wartime operational control (Opcon) to Korea.

Experts view this as a move by Washington to possibly shift the domain of the Korea-U.S. alliance and not limit it just to the Korean Peninsula.

Washington recently proposed a revision to a combined crisis management manual with Seoul, according to a government source here Tuesday, which sets guidelines on how the Korea-U.S. alliance deals with a “Korean Peninsula contingency,” specifying the roles of each side and combined responses.

According to the source, Washington proposed revising this classified document to include “U.S. contingencies,” thus expanding the scope of combined operations from crisis situations on the Korean Peninsula to cover what the United States regard as threats to its own national security.

Should Seoul accept the U.S. proposal, this could lead the Korean military to support or partake in overseas operations not directly related to Korea, which are determined to be a threat to the United States.

It could provide legal grounds for Korea to dispatch troops to regions beyond the Asia-Pacific, such as the Strait of Hormuz, where the United States is leading a coalition to protect ships, the Middle East or the South China Sea.

The mutual defense treaty between Korea and the United States of 1953 clearly sets the Pacific region as the scope of their joint deterrence.

Article III of the treaty stipulates that the two sides recognize that “an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties in territories now under their respective administrative control” would “be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger.”

It further stipulates that the United States understands “that neither party is obligated, under Article III of the above Treaty, to come to the aid of the other except in case of an external armed attack against” Korea or a territory under its administrative control.

A revision to the crisis management manual could violate that mutual defense treaty, and the Korean government during discussions with the United States conveyed its view that accepting the proposal is difficult because of the treaty.

However, U.S. President Donald Trump has been demanding allies play a larger role in defense, so Seoul may have a difficult time ignoring the proposal, especially if Washington pushes to include U.S. contingencies as a condition for Opcon transfer.

The U.S. proposal is seen by some analysts as an attempt by Washington to get Seoul to play a more active role in security cooperation with the United States in exchange for the transfer of Opcon.

The target for transferring wartime Opcon from the U.S. Forces Korea is 2020, as President Moon Jae-in’s five-year term ends in May that year.

“It seems like the United States expects Korea to partake [in operations] in regions outside the Pacific area,” a Korean Army official said. “This seems like a signal for Korea to actively join in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy,” referring to the Trump administration’s strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region, seen as a policy in part to contain China.

Military insiders are concerned that Washington is calling on Seoul to at least help in its efforts to contain China in the region.

A Korean government official said, “The discussions have just commenced, so we are leaving all possibilities open.”

However, Choi Hyun-soo, spokesperson of the Ministry of National Defense, said in a briefing in Seoul Tuesday, “Reports that we may have to send our troops to overseas areas of conflict determined to be a threat by the United States after the Opcon transfer are not true.”

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]