Leading U.S. and Multinational Forces in South Korea and the Management of Competing Interests
Shawn Creamer examines the different roles that the U.S. four-star general officer in South Korea must perform and argues that the unique responsibilities concentrated in this position require the officer to compartmentalize the alliance “hat” from other unilateral national responsibilities.
The U.S. government maintains a four-star general officer to represent its many military and security interests in the Republic of Korea (ROK). This senior U.S. general officer is simultaneously appointed on behalf of the U.S. government to four legally distinct military capacities on the Korean Peninsula, colloquially referred to in military circles as “hats.” Deep intersectionality and tensions arise from a single individual executing such a diverse expanse of responsibilities for large portions of the friendly force. Pressures builds between the four capacities due to their competing imperatives, authorities, and communication channels, which can be compounded by the fact that this senior U.S. general officer relies on staff from three highly diverse headquarters for support in executing command responsibilities.
This essay identifies gaps in current understanding of the theater-level command and alliance decision-making architecture through a deeper examination of the hats worn by the U.S. four-star general officer in South Korea. It argues that the wide range of unique responsibilities concentrated in this position requires the officer to compartmentalize the alliance hat from other unilateral national responsibilities.
THE FOUR HATS
Of the four hats the general officer wears in the ROK, three are command responsibilities with the United States Forces Korea (USFK), the United Nations Command (UNC), and the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC). The fourth hat is serving as the representative of the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where the general officer represents U.S. national interests in the Military Committee’s Permanent Session (as described below). When wearing this fourth hat, the general officer is known as the senior U.S. military officer assigned to Korea (SUSMOAK). However, the scope of the SUSMOAK is narrowly defined by the Military Committee and the CFC Terms of Reference, meaning that the officer is not acting as a representative of the other three hats as SUSMOAK.
While U.S. military commands headquartered in South Korea have existed since 1957, these four legally distinct military capacities have only coexisted together since 1978. From 1978 to 1992, the CFC and UNC headquarters were joined together, while the USFK headquarters were separate. From 1992 to 2018, the CFC, UNC, and USFK headquarters were conjoined, referred to by U.S. service members as the tri-command. The tri-command relationship involved U.S. joint service members operating from a single headquarter workspace. Most of these U.S. staff members operated in a highly complex, interconnected web of multi-hatted capacities not just across the three commands but also in support of the SUSMOAK on the Military Committee. During this period, the cross-command responsibilities of the U.S. service members induced certain tensions with and bewilderment by the ROK service members who only supported the CFC. The tri-command structure made it difficult for the ROK service members to understand which command the U.S. service members represented at any given time. In 2018 a change was made to disentwine the roles of U.S. service members supporting the three headquarters. Thereafter, these headquarters were operated by separate staffs, except for some multi-hatted U.S. general officers and low-density specialists who still supported more than one command.
Today, the USFK headquarters staff consists of U.S. joint force service members and civilian employees, while the UNC headquarters staff consists of joint force service members from the U.S. and the UN Sending States. The USFK also maintains three foreign exchange officers on its staff, one from Australia and two from the United Kingdom. The headquarters staff for the CFC consists of ROK joint force service members, U.S. joint force service members, and U.S. civilian employees. The USFK, UNC, and CFC are also supported by Korean national civilian employees working as employees of the U.S. government. Many of the key supporting leaders on whom the U.S. four-star general officer relies across the four hats are also multi-hatted general officers who remain interconnected, as they were in the former tri-command-era paradigm of cross-command, cross-service responsibilities. This phenomenon at times requires the U.S. four-star general officer to sort out command authorities, responsibilities, and communication channels, while at the same time synchronizing and prioritizing the command’s common purposes and goals.
“Further complicating the senior U.S. general officer’s extensive command responsibilities is the added obligation to the contributing nations and the forces they would provide to the UNC and CFC in wartime.”
While all three of these commands are in support of one common goal—peace and security on the Korean Peninsula—all have competing strategic imperatives. The USFK and UNC are unilateral U.S. commands reporting to U.S. national authorities, including the president, while the CFC is the military embodiment of the ROK-U.S. alliance, operating under the bilateral strategic guidance and direction of the ROK-U.S. Military Committee. Further complicating the senior U.S. general officer’s extensive command responsibilities is the added obligation to the contributing nations and the forces they would provide to the UNC and CFC in wartime. To help mitigate the cross-purpose challenges of these three commands, the three staffs supporting the senior U.S. general officer must first comprehend the distinct authorities and responsibilities that reside within their specific command. Second, each must have a clear understanding of communication channels to it higher headquarters. Third, each staff must have a clear understanding of decision authorities that reside in its higher headquarters. Each command must then exercise the requisite staff discipline to keep to its correct command lines and communication channels and avoid stepping on another command’s toes.
NAVIGATING CFC AND SUSMOAK ROLES
Among the more nuanced arrangements for the senior U.S. general officer to navigate are the roles of the CFC commander and the SUSMOAK. As the CFC commander, the general officer is focused on the operational military domain and the attainment of the alliance’s military objectives. However, the SUSMOAK must operate at the higher strategic level on behalf of the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to represent U.S. national interests at the Military Committee’s Permanent Session. At Permanent Session forums, the SUSMOAK and the ROK chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff counterpart provide mutually developed strategic guidance and direction for the CFC. When required, the members of the Military Committee’s Permanent Session engage their respective national authorities for political guidance and direction. As the SUSMOAK, the U.S. four-star general officer in South Korea is supported by the USFK assistant chief of staff J5, a U.S. Marine Corps two-star general officer, as secretary.
“While the CFC commander should of course remain informed on strategy and policy in the execution of the command duty assigned by the Military Committee, these influences must include both the ROK and U.S. perspectives together.”
It is important to remember that the CFC was purposely designed and built to focus exclusively on the operational military domain, reserving the strategic and political domains, respectively, to the Military Committee and the national authorities. As the CFC commander, the U.S. four-star general officer must compartmentalize the CFC duty from the other assigned responsibilities, effectively screening out U.S. strategic and national policy positions. This is done to prioritize the alliance’s military operations over the general officer’s own national imperatives in order to retain both outward and inward credibility as the alliance’s appointed commander.
While the CFC commander should of course remain informed on strategy and policy in the execution of the command duty assigned by the Military Committee, these influences must include both the ROK and U.S. perspectives together. When strategy and policy divergences arise, the CFC commander is to default to existing standing orders and execute military operations to their fullest. The role of this position within the alliance is to focus on the operational military domain, while it is the Military Committee and national authorities’ role to reach bilateral concurrence on strategic and political matters. This demarcation of roles and responsibilities is essential so that the CFC and its assigned military forces can focus on prosecuting the military campaign and delivering battlefield success for the attainment of agreed-on alliance strategic and political objectives.
The commander of the CFC has received substantial bilaterally developed strategic guidance and direction from the Military Committee to perform the alliance mission. Since 1978, such guidance has taken multiple forms, including the Terms of Reference for the Military Committee and the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command, the Strategic Directive, and other Military Committee and national authority decisions, including most importantly the bilaterally approved Strategic Planning Guidance (SPG) and the CFC operational plan produced from the SPG. However, despite the existing guidance and decisions, the CFC commander will face circumstances that require updated guidance from the Military Committee or decisions by the national authorities. Examples include defense condition changes or operational plan phased transitions. In those scenarios, as CFC commander the four-star general officer makes a recommendation to the Military Committee concerning operational requirements aligned with the CFC mission. Simultaneously, in the role of SUSMOAK, the general officer will consider the strategic implications of that CFC recommendation through a unilateral U.S. strategic lens. However, if the strategic conditions determine that it is not in the U.S. national interest to support the CFC commander’s recommendation, the general officer has the responsibility to represent that U.S. strategic position as the U.S. chairman’s representative, the SUSMOAK, further underscoring the challenges of navigating between the CFC commander and SUSMOAK roles.
COMPARTMENTALIZED VS. COMINGLED RESPONSIBILITIES
Some U.S. alliance managers do not subscribe to the above compartmentalized approach to the simultaneous exercising of multiple hats, arguing that it is too cumbersome and complex for the common staff officer to understand. Additional arguments against compartmentalization include that multi-hatted leaders should comingle all their responsibilities, so that all the responsibilities are synchronized and not cross-purposed. Under such an approach, the CFC commander would not recommend or seek guidance on a military course of action if it conflicted with one of the command’s other strategic or operational imperatives, or if the commander knew through a unilateral role that the U.S. government’s strategic or political position was not aligned with a certain military pathway.
However, if compartmentalization is regarded as the wrong approach, then what does this say about the CFC’s relationship with the alliance command structure and all the international military agreements governing it? If we were to condone an approach in which the U.S. national authority and policy dictate how the U.S. four-star general officer commands the CFC, then the Military Committee’s influence is diminished and the delicate balance of U.S. and ROK national interests within the alliance command is disrupted. In this case, the United States should then be willing to accept that in the future the ROK national authority and government policy would influence the actions of a future ROK-appointed commander of the CFC.
Consequently, the comingling approach is not in the United States’ national interest now, nor will it be in the future, just as such an approach is not in the ROK’s national interest today. In practical terms, should one nation’s service members display an unhealthy nationalist orientation to their CFC duties, this would necessitate the partner’s service members to do the same in order to balance their nation’s interests within the command. An increasingly downward spiral in staff efficiency and mission effectiveness would be generated as a result of a bifurcated staff operating along nationalist lines.
General Dwight Eisenhower serves as a positive role model for today’s military leaders operating in multinational command settings, particularly in how he approached working with allies, compartmentalized his coalition duties, and stood above the fray of competing national interests as the commander of coalition forces. While the individual agency provided by a commander has always been a decisive factor in any command arrangement, General Eisenhower was able to flourish in multinational settings because the coalitions he led possessed a unifying purpose, with common views of political objectives. Moreover, he was resourced by his coalitions with a staff both appropriately sized to the mission requirements and empowered with the authority and trust to make the necessary decisions for the alliance. While no two multinational commands are the same, there are striking similarities to the command arrangements led by General Eisenhower and those in South Korea today.
“Coalitions fracture in crisis and war when unilateral imperatives come to dominate the military command established to execute the allied campaign. Regional and transnational security concerns require bilateral and multilateral solutions, not domination by one set of interests.”
In closing, the U.S. four-star general officer in South Korea should continue to compartmentalize the position of CFC commander, clearly separating it from the other three hats conceptually. This includes the necessity for the CFC commander to suppress the role of serving as a U.S. service member beholden exclusively to the U.S. government. For when acting in an alliance capacity, this officer should exercise commander authorities and make decisions in the best interests of both nations’ forces. Coalitions fracture in crisis and war when unilateral imperatives come to dominate the military command established to execute the allied campaign. Regional and transnational security concerns require bilateral and multilateral solutions, not domination by one set of interests.
In order to maintain the sanctity of the CFC as an allied institution, all members, including the commander, must stand above national prerogatives when performing their duties. This last point is pivotal. Nations supporting a coalition count on their forces being utilized for alliance purposes and not one member’s own national prerogatives. This expectation differs little from the professional military ethic we demand of our service members to be duty-bound to their military oaths, avoiding partisan national politics.
Shawn P. Creamer is an active duty U.S. Army colonel, currently serving as the Deputy Director for Strategy, Plans, and Policy at United States Forces Korea. He was commissioned through the ROTC as an infantry officer in 1995 when he graduated from the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. He has served in a wide variety of command and staff assignments over the course of his 26-year career, which includes 11 years assigned to the ROK or working on Korean Peninsula security issues. He was a U.S. Army War College Fellow in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program and is a fellow with the Institute for Corean-American Studies.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
 This essay expands on previous work by the author on joint and multinational theater-level command and the ROK-U.S. alliance’s decision-making construct, representing the fourth in a series of essays and research projects. See Shawn P. Creamer, “Theater-Level Command and Alliance Decision-Making Architecture in South Korea,” International Journal of Korean Studies, no. 20 (2016); Shawn P. Creamer, “Joint and Multinational Theater Headquarters in Korea: History, Organization and Manpower Activities,” Institute for Corean-American Studies, January 6, 2020; and Shawn P. Creamer, “Setting the Record Straight on OPCON Transition in the U.S.-ROK Alliance,” National Bureau of Asian Research, July 16, 2021, https://www.nbr.org/publication/setting-the-record-straight-on-opcon-transition-in-the-u-s-rok-alliance.
 UN Sending State military personnel serving on the UNC headquarters staff is a relatively recent phenomenon. While such personnel have been historically affiliated with the UNC’s Liaison Group, the Military Armistice Commission, and the Honor Guard, they did not formally operate inside the UNC’s headquarters as designated staff members until 2015, except for a brief period during 1952–56.
 The key U.S. staff directors assigned to USFK all have corresponding duty assignments with the CFC as either the primary staff director or as a deputy director. The USFK J3 and J5 also have staff director assignments with the UNC.
 The ROK-U.S. Military Committee is a bilateral body of senior military officers from both nations that provides strategic guidance, direction, and oversight over the ROK-U.S. CFC. The body consists of two sessions: a plenary consisting of all members, which typically meets in person annually; and a permanent session consisting of the ROK chairman and the SUSMOAK (representing the U.S. chairman), which meets routinely in person to issue day-to-day guidance to the command. For further discussion, see Creamer, “Theater-Level Command and Alliance Decision-Making Architecture in Korea,” 49–51.
 Former CFC-UNC-USFK chief of staff and Eighth Army commander, Lieutenant General Dan Petrosky, promoted three secrets to success during his tenure in South Korea for the staffs supporting him: know your lane, stay in your lane, and keep people out of your lane.
 The reference to the USFK assistant chief of staff J5 supporting the SUSMOAK in a secretariat capacity is significant for the reader to understand as it highlights the complexity of the entire enterprise. This two-star general officer has other multiple duty appointments, as the assistant chief of staff C5 for CFC and as the assistant chief of staff U5 for the UNC. The USFK J5 position supports the SUSMOAK at the Permanent Session because the SUSMOAK is representing U.S. national interests in an alliance forum. The complexity arises in that the members of the three staffs (USFK, CFC, and UNC), in addition to other commands such as the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the U.S. Joint Staff, see this U.S. Marine Corps two-star general officer as a single all-encompassing individual rather than through a compartmentalized lens as separate entities. Additionally, some alliance managers mistakenly assume that this two-star general officer is acting in a CFC C5 capacity when supporting the SUSMOAK due to the CFC subject matter being conducted. This comingling of responsibilities and authorities manifests itself improperly through staff actions being subsumed and executed by the wrong command, through actions being reported often to the wrong higher headquarters, and through the wrong higher headquarters at times communicating improperly to the wrong command.
 The problems associated with not compartmentalizing the commands have been identified as undermining efficient and effective military operations as far back as the spring of 1951. Creamer, “Theater-Level Command and Alliance Decision-Making Architecture in Korea,” 55–56.
 During World War II, General Eisenhower served as the commander-in-chief of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. After the war, he helped form its successor as commander-in-chief of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe for NATO.
 Both NATO and the CFC are categorized by the U.S. Defense Department as International Military Headquarters. In addition, both commands are governed at the strategic level by a military committee and at the political level by the national authorities of contributing nations. That said, the NATO model is more complex and cumbersome than the CFC model due to the large number of nations belonging to the coalition.
 Should a U.S. four-star general officer not compartmentalize the four hats, particularly the CFC hat from the others, it may reinforce Korean perceptions of this officer as a “U.S. representative” regardless of which hat (SUSMOAK, CFC, USFK, or UNC) is being worn.