During the Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2004, Seoul and Washington agreed to move most of the U.S. military installations in central Seoul further south of the border to Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. Under the agreement, all facilities from the main Yongsan Army base must be relocated to Pyeongtaek by 2016.
But now the U.S. military has raised the possibility of keeping the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command in Seoul. U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said Sunday that the issue is being considered, though no decisions have been made.
Under the 2004 agreement, the CFC was destined to be dismantled when the U.S. returns full operational control of the South Korean military back to Seoul. But the Lee Myung-bak administration, which followed, postponed the timing of the handover, and the incumbent Park Geun-hye administration is in talks to push the date back even further. This means the CFC will continue to serve as a symbol of the Seoul-Washington alliance and oversee joint military responses to any North Korean threat.
If South Korea's Defense Ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff remain in Seoul while the USFK headquarters moves further south, efficient coordination may be difficult in times of crisis. The U.S. military is aware of this concern, and so is Seoul, as demonstrated by the fact that the Defense Ministry was left in Seoul even though most other government ministries were relocated to Sejong city.
The problem is that Korea hopes to build a park on the site of the sprawling Yongsan garrison once it moves. The city government and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport plans to create a massive park that would rival New York's Central Park in scale. Keeping the CFC there would get in the way. But an alternative being tossed around is to allow the CFC to move into the Defense Ministry building, and all kinds of other alternatives could be found.As it fired a Scud missile into the West Sea on Saturday, Pyongyang said the exercise was aimed at practicing to strike U.S. bases in South Korea. Keeping the CFC in Seoul would send a clear message to Pyongyang that any wrong move would entail serious consequences. Seoul and Washington should seriously consider the idea.