This blog was written by CSM (Ret) Rick Lamb, Global SOF Director of Military Relations, after he visited Seoul, South Korea in May 2019.
I recently had the honor of celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Special Operations Command – Korea (SOCKOR) at their new facilities on US Army Garrison, Humphreys.
There was no other place that I’d rather be!
SOCKOR has always been my favorite Theater Special Operations Command (TSOC). As the undisputed Underdog amongst the TSOCs, they have the difficult mission of maintaining Peace on the Korean Peninsula and responding to threats from the Communist North. With three of our top five security challenges in their backyard, they are surrounded by potential adversaries and punch way above their weight.
Korea is a strange holdover from the Cold War. Often called the “Forgotten War”, Korea is a sixty-nine-year old conflict that no one saw coming, nobody wanted to fight, and everyone wishes was over and would just go away. To that end, SOCKOR is a reluctant afterthought in a resourcing tug-of-war that ebbs and flows based on the erratic behavior of the odd Communist Dynasty in the North. With the recent development of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, the scale of carnage is unthinkable – and failure to prepare is indefensible.
So, the Peninsula is intermittently prioritized based on acts of aggression from the North and overtures of reconciliation from South Korea and the United States. US Defense planners are forced to balance the risks of reallocating resources from a shrinking and over committed force – largely focused on Counter Terrorism Operations in the Middle East – against fulfilling Armistice obligations in support of one of our strongest allies in Asia.
But SOCKOR remains vigilant…
And as a testament to their personnel, leadership and commitment – they do more with less. That’s why I like them! They live in an increasingly volatile neighborhood, well within the surface danger area of the North’s most potent weapons, and “Crack-on”. In my darker moments, I worry about how history tends to “Rhyme” and believe that those who don’t remember history are often doomed to repeat it. History is palpable in Korea, it’s all around you. As you head north towards the border between North and South Korea you begin seeing the barbed wire, guard towers, and fighting positions that start at the outskirts of Seoul and snake along the Han River all the way to the southern boundary of the not so Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). You live in an environment of unfinished business, forever in the shadow of Task Force Smith.
In 1945 the US had the strongest military the world had ever seen. Our force projection, logistics, and combat power had no equal – much like today. When the 460 men of Task Force Smith hit the field against the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) just five years after the end of World War II, less than 30 percent were combat veterans, they were poorly trained for the mission at hand, lacked discipline, and were out of shape for the terrain they would face. They carried weapons from the last war, and in early engagements they didn’t even recognize the enemy! They lasted about seven hours before retreating in a series of delaying actions from Osan down to the Pusan perimeter, leaving a trail of dead and captured personnel along with military equipment and weapons all along their route. Competing global priorities, post war resource reductions, and occupation duty in Japan made the force ill-prepared for contingencies outside of Europe. Everyone thought the war was over and the Chain of Command failed to identify the risks and prepare and resource for what would come next. They became complacent.
The Garrison at Humphreys rivals anything you see in the Continental United States (CONUS). It’s beautiful! Translation – there’s a lot of distractions. The clubs and restaurants are open, the shopping is world class, and the golf course kicks ass! It’s hard to imagine that the war is not over yet. On a big installation, you don’t have the intimacy of a small camp with a Local Training Area (LTA) right outside the gate where small unit leaders can hone skills. There’s no longer an “Expeditionary” feel or a sense of urgency that you felt in the smaller camps closer to the DMZ. The biggest threats now come from an uncomfortable proximity to the Flagpole, or from MPs looking for work. I’m not hacking on either–I’m just saying! Leaders will have to improvise in order to get tight.
They don’t go quietly into the night
History shows us the totalitarian ideologies — and the thugs that benefit from them — don’t go quietly into the night. North Korea will be no different. Strangely, the people who suffer under these totalitarian systems do not develop commensurate to their counterparts in free and open societies. That will make re-integration lengthy and difficult. We saw it in Eastern Germany and the Warsaw Pact after the fall of the Soviet Union. Their populations did not progress like their peers in free nations. Today, your average North Korean is four inches shorter than their South Korean counterpart, and the blended culture and dialect in the South is increasingly alien to those isolated in the North. Solid contingency planning for post conflict or peace, and our ability to provide adequate long-term support will be critical…