U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. James Thurman has proposed that Seoul and Washington keep the Combined Forces Command even after the handover of full operational control of Korean troops in December 2015. He suggested that it be headed by a Korean officer instead of the USFK chief, as at present.
The CFC, which was created in 1978, has been a key symbol of the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. It enables the massive number of U.S. troops to be mobilized instantly in the event of a North Korean attack. The very existence of the CFC has served as a strong deterrent to possible North Korean aggression. Its dismantlement will make it complicated for the USFK to intervene in an emergency on the Korean Peninsula, and the effectiveness of the alliance would be severely weakened. These are the reasons why there was strong opposition from veteran officers when the Roh Moo-hyun administration pushed ahead with the handover of full operation control of South Korean troops to Seoul. They worried that the handover would effectively dismantle the CFC.
In talks between Seoul and Washington in 2006, the South proposed keeping the CFC but under the leadership of a South Korean military officer. The U.S. rejected the offer as expected, because it has a principle that an American officer should be the supreme commander of combined forces.
But now the U.S. has changed its mind, apparently due to the Obama administration's "Pivot to Asia" strategy of shifting its foreign policy focus from Europe to Asia. China, which the U.S. euphemistically refers to as a "new challenge," as well as many fast-growing countries are in the Asia-Pacific region. Some believe the U.S. is seeking to use the CFC as a safety pin.
South Korea will not find out what the U.S.' true intentions are until it listens to the official proposal. It seems unlikely that Washington would really leave the fate of tens of thousands of American troops under the control of a South Korean commander in wartime. Also, China is wary of the Seoul-Washington military alliance and could react sensitively to moves to keep the CFC. This is another area that needs close attention.
If the U.S. is serious, it will probably make a formal proposal to keep the CFC to the next South Korean administration. Presidential hopefuls from both the ruling and opposition parties must get ready to negotiate with Washington about the issue while pondering where to take the bilateral alliance at a time when North Korea has just enshrined its nuclear ambitions in its constitution.