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Special Operations Command, Korea (SOCKOR)

On 28 May 2012, The Diplomat magazine in Japan published a report by David Axe in which he quoted Brigadier General Neil H. Tolley, then commander of SOCKOR, as saying that US and South Korean special operations forces had been deployed into North Korea to conduct special reconnaissance operations to examine various underground tunnel complexes in the country. US Forces Korea officials denied the claims and said that any statements by Brigadier General Tolley had been taken out of context and/or fabricated. on 29 May 2012, the Department of Defense's Press Secretary George E. Little said that it was his understanding that Brigadier General Tolley's comments had been "contorted, distorted, [and] misreported." Other reporters present at NDIA's 2012 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, however, said that they had also heard Brigadier General Tolley make the comments in question. The author of the report denied having fabricated or deliberately taken any statements by Brigadier General Tolley out of context, but the report was removed from The Diplomat's website. The Diplomat also issued a clarification, suggesting that Brigadier General Tolley may have been speaking hypothetically. It was not clear immediately whether a transcript of Brigadier General Tolley's comments would be made available. On 30 May 2012, Brigadier General Tolley released a statement in which he said he had been speaking hypothetically, but "should have been clearer."

Special Operations Command Korea (SOCKOR) plans and conducts special operations in support of Commander, US Forces Korea/United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command in armistice, crisis and war. SOCKOR, located at Camp Kim in Yongsan, Korea, is the theater special operations command responsible for special operations on the Korean peninsula and, when established, the Korean Theater of Operations (KTO). The KTO and SOCKOR exist because there has never been a peace treaty officially ending the Korean War. Military forces on the Korean Peninsula maintain a heightened state of readiness to respond to the resumption of hostilities with little or no warning.

During armistice and peace, SOCKOR is responsible to the Commander, US Forces Korea/United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command for special operations forces war planning, targeting, training, and participation in exercises and contingency operations on the Korean peninsula. SOCKOR is the only theater SOC in which US and host nation special operations forces are institutionally organized for combined operations. Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC) supports SOCKOR in these responsibilities and routinely demonstrates its capability to reinforce SOCKOR rapidly during a crisis. During a contingency or wartime, SOCKOR could grow to over 400 personnel.

Prior to 1988, management of special operations forces in Korea fell to United States Forces Korea (USFK) J3, Special Operations Division-Korea (SOD-K). The concept of a permanent theater special operations command in Korea began to take shape in 1983, culminating on 1 October 1988 in the creation of Special Operations Command Korea (then abbreviated SOC-K) within USFK J3. Colonel James Estep, the first Commander, also served as Chief, J3 SOD-K and Deputy Commander, C-3 SOD-K. These unique command relationships in Korea meant that SOC-K was the only theater special operations command that was not a subordinate unified command. This dual-hatted command continued until July 1995.

The complex command relationship in Korea was the result of the fact that the Koran Theater of Operations achieved unity of effort through a web of command relationships comprised of 3 military elements with different but complementary missions, all commanded by a single commander. The KTO was unique because the commander in Korea was not a US unified commander. As the Commander in Chief, United Nations Command (CINCUNC), he was the international commander responsible for maintaining the armistice that existed in Korea since 1953. As the Commander in Chief, Republic of Korea (ROK)/US Combined Forces Command (CINCCFC), he was a bi-national commander who supported the United Nations Command by deterring North Korean aggression and, if necessary, defeating a North Korean attack. As the Commander, US Forces, Korea, he was the subordinate unified commander of US Pacific Command (PACOM) responsible for providing US forces to the other 2 commands.

By the early 2000s, Special operations forces helped to shape the strategic environment by contributing directly to the deterrence efforts of both United Nations Command and Combined Forces Command through long-term deployments of special operations forces, such as AC-130 gunships, during critical periods. Through the integration of ROK and US special operations forces in combined exercises, SOCKOR assisted in expanding allied special operations forces capabilities to respond to the spectrum of threats, as well as to ensure that there was post-reunification relevance for ROK special operations forces. Although not under the operational control of SOCKOR, US civil affairs and psychological operations forces also assumed significantly greater roles in support of United Nations Command and Combined Forces Command through the Combined Civil Affairs Task Force (CCATF) and Combined Psychological Operations Task Force (CPOTF). The US special operations forces elements apportioned to the CCATF and CPOTF helped to shape the combined capabilities of Combined Forces Command to execute these missions across the full range of military operations.

To add to the challenge posed by a return to hostilities, there were a number of "wild card scenarios" that might occur, including North Korean terrorist actions, direct military confrontations, threats of the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, missile launches, and other forms of provocation to gain political and economic concessions. Other potential crises included massive refugee flow, natural or manmade disasters, transfer of or loss of control of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the outbreak of civil war within North Korea, and collapse of the North Korean state. Therefore, as US special operations forces trained for war, they also had to prepare for the uncertainty and complexity of post-hostilities and a wide range of potential crises requiring swift and skilled military intervention. This was a uniquely human endeavor and while advanced technology had important applications in these scenarios, it was the human element that was key to success. The cultural awareness and language abilities of SOF units were also expected to play a critical role in influencing the North Korean population and assisting allied forces in the transition to a reunified Korean Peninsula.

Colonel Booth, the fifth SOC-K commander, successfully separated SOC-K from USFK J3 SOD-K, establishing it as an independently-functioning command. This resulted in the change in abbreviation to SOCKOR to align with the other theater special operations commands. The staff then began transforming SOCKOR into a separate subunified command under the operational control of the Commander, United States Forces Korea. The original manning of 8 personnel in 1989 grew to 82 active duty and civilian positions by 2010. SOCKOR also fought to raise its staff position ranks to mirror other theater special operations commands. In 2000, Brigadier General Ronald S. Magnum became the first general officer to command SOCKOR.

In 2005, the US Army's Special Forces Detachment - Korea (SFD-K), under the operational control of SOCKOR though otherwise assigned to the US Army's 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), was reflagged as the 39th Special Forces Detachment (Airborne). This unit remained under the operational control of SOCKOR.

In 2009, the US Army's Company E, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), under the tactical control of SOCKOR, was inactivated and reflagged as an element of 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne). Though no longer forward deployed to Korea, 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment was focused toward operations in the Pacific region and elements continued to coordinate closely with SOCKOR.

Combined Unconventional Warfare Task Force (CUWTF)

If the armistice fails, SOCKOR and ROK Special Warfare Command would combine to establish the Combined Unconventional Warfare Task Force (CUWTF) under the Combined Forces Command, answerable to a Combined Unconventional Warfare Command. Under the existing plan, if and when the CUWTF was formed, the SOCKOR Commander would become the CUWTF Deputy Commander. SOCKOR would then be designated as the United Nations Command Special Operations Component under the United Nations Command, with the SOCKOR Commander as the Special Operations Component Commander.

As the special operations component of the Combined Forces Command, the CUWTF would plan and conduct joint and combined special operations throughout the Korea Theater of Operations in support of both United Nations Command and Combined Forces Command, exercising operational control of all assigned and attached US and ROK special operations forces. Additionally, the Special Operations Component of United Nations Command would integrate all third-country special operations forces committed to United Nations Command. When fully reinforced with US forces, SOCKOR could comprises the largest Joint Special Operations Task Force in the world.




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