The United States will retain command of South Korea's military forces in the event of a war with the North, following a delay in a planned change of command protocol. The announcement came following a meeting between United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and South Korean Defense Minister Ham Min-koo.
According to military.com, Hagel said that the agreement “will delay the scheduled transfer of operational control” to South Korea of its own forces until at least 2020. Officials from both countries ascribed the delay to "an evolving security environment" and an "intensifying" threat from North Korea, according to a report from the BBC.
Under the current command structure, Curtis M. Scaparrotti, a four-star general and the U.S. Forces Korea commander, also heads the United Nations Command and the U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command. A South Korean four-star army general serves as deputy commander. If war with the North were to break out, Gen. Scaparrotti would lead U.S. and South Korean troops, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.
The U.S. has over 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, and has maintained a significant military presence in the country since hostilities in the Korean War ended in 1953.
The move is likely to spark local controversy, according to Korean news agency Yonhap, as the postponement also places an unspecified delay on plans to move U.S. forces out of a major military base in the South Korean capital, Seoul. The government has pledged to redevelop the base into a park as part of a “pledge to the people.”
Bruce Bechtol, an author with knowledge of military intelligence in Korea, told Forbes that the plan for a transfer of command was always “a bad idea,” and resulted from a political climate prevalent in South Korea when the government was pursuing its 'sunshine' policy toward the North. Bechtol told the magazine that the South Korean government at the time was also “so anti-American in its bias it could not make a pragmatic decision regarding its own national security.”
The presence of U.S. troops in South Korea has not been without controversy, and there have been many protests against their presence over the years. In 2002, hundreds of people protested in Seoul, after two 14-year-old Korean girls were killed by a U.S. tank. A U.S. court martial acquitted the two servicemen inside the tank of negligent homicide.