YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — With years of training and planning but few public announcements, South Korean military forces have been taking over key missions from the U.S. military in the past year, according to U.S. Forces Korea officials.

The transition is making South Korea more militarily independent than any time since the Korean War, according to U.S. Marine Col. John Koenig, chief of plans and policy for the combined forces.

“It’s a healthy thing,” Koenig said in a recent interview. “Every country should want to defend themselves. It shows they are increasingly sophisticated and capable. It’s only fitting that they take part in their own defense.”

In January, another mission was transferred from U.S. to South Korean control, the seventh of 10 transfers to take place under a 2003 agreement between both nations.

As of mid-January, South Koreans now are in charge of the maritime response to any invasion by North Korean special operations forces should war break out, Koenig said. The move marks South Korea’s goal of evolving from a ground-based military to a stronger multi-branch force, he added.

The transfers include missions tied to both possible wartime and current military scenarios, Koenig said. The changes also fit with both nations’ plans to shrink the number of U.S. troops in South Korea, move the bulk of U.S. forces south of Seoul and bolster both militaries’ technologies, he said.

The process, Koenig said, has been challenging, and has included a set of qualifying conditions from the United States.

“The Americans, we have high expectations,” he said. “The [Koreans] worry about comparison. It is tricky. It can be a confidence issue, or about equipment. It’s a tremendous amount of work, pulling it together.”

One of the more public transfers happened in the fall of 2004 at the Demilitarized Zone, the border that separates North and South Korea. On Oct. 31, 2004, the South Koreans took control of patrolling the Joint Security Area, the compound where talks between the two Koreas occur and where millions of tourists on both sides visit each year.

But some of the more strategic changes include South Korea’s ability to protect supply routes in wartime and to counter and destroy North Korea’s underground missile system, which can hit Seoul repeatedly while barely revealing its weapons, Koenig said.

Improved technology for the South Koreans helped with this “counter-fire” transfer. Koenig said it’s right that South Korea is now responsible for defending such an attack on its capital city.

“That’s about the defense of Seoul,” he said. “It’s their capital, their center of society.”

Three mission transfers remain: weather forecasting, close-air-support controllers and day/night search and rescues. Those should be completed by early 2007, he said.

Already, U.S. and South Korean sides are making suggestions for the next round of transfers. That likely will be outlined at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s next meeting with Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung.

Koenig said the next set might require longer timelines in order to get appropriate equipment in place for the South Koreans.

“It’s been a learning experience for both militaries,” he said.

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