SEOUL — The U.S. and South Korea are discussing whether to leave the joint Combined Forces Command in Seoul after American forces relocate to Pyeongtaek, according to top defense officials from both countries.
U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti — who also heads the CFC — said Sunday (July 27) the matter was “under consideration.”
“Simply, my intention is to come out with what is the best posture for the security of the country,” he said according to a USFK transcript of comments he made after a news conference following a ceremony marking the 61st anniversary of the armistice ending the Korean War.
South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo told Korean reporters during a luncheon Tuesday that although the long-planned relocation of U.S. troops to regional hubs south of Seoul will take place as scheduled, no decisions have been made regarding whether to make an exception for the joint warfighting command.
“The two sides are to have discussions over where to locate it and how to deal with relevant issues,” he said, according to Yonhap News. “Under the changing circumstances of the delay in our retaking of wartime command from the U.S., we are reviewing diverse ways on how to strengthen our joint defense system.”
The command, established in 1978, has a South Korean general as deputy commander. The top U.S. commander would now lead both U.S. and South Korean forces if war broke out on the peninsula, a responsibility that would fall to the top South Korean commander after the transfer of wartime operational control takes place. That OPCON transfer is scheduled for December 2015, but provocations by North Korea have prompted the South to push for a delay. A decision is expected later this year.
Scaparrotti said that as the two countries work through negotiations on the OPCON transition, “our governments are working on what is the best posture for all of our command and control here in the (South Korea)-U.S. alliance.”
Officials have previously said that after OPCON transfer, the CFC would dissolve and be replaced by separate U.S. and South Korean commands. But what will happen to CFC in the meantime, particularly if the transfer is delayed, remains unclear.
The possibility of keeping the CFC in Seoul has raised concerns in South Korea that the overall USFK relocation plan could be delayed, something that South Korean officials have denied.
Neither USFK nor South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense would specify what leaving the CFC in Seoul would entail in terms of staffing. Nor would they comment specifically on the possibility of creating a combined U.S.-South Korean division that would be stationed near the Demilitarized Zone after most U.S. forces move south — an issue Scaparrotti last fall called a “strong possibility” that would “be a strong additive to our alliance.”
USFK issued a statement this week that said, “currently, the Combined Division plan has no impact on the relocation of the 2nd Infantry Division south of Seoul.”
MND spokesman Kim Min-seok said during a press briefing this week that the U.S. will not maintain military bases north of Seoul, but discussions are under way about “how to best maintain our joint combat readiness.”
The bulk of U.S. forces in and north of Seoul are scheduled to move to hubs in Pyeongtaek and Daegu within a few years. Camp Humphreys is being expanded to become the U.S. military’s flagship installation. The Army says the massive project is on track to be completed in 2016-17 after years of delays.