Posted October. 30, 2017 07:52,
Updated October. 30, 2017 08:05
Defense chiefs of South Korea and the United States reaffirmed a conditions-based early transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) from Washington to Seoul on Saturday at the annual Security Consultative Meeting. In their joint statement at the close of the first meeting held since Presidents Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump took office earlier this year, the allies’ defense chiefs have agreed to make their joint efforts “to enable the expeditious conditions-based transfer of OPCON.” Their agreement was to implement steadily their leaders’ decision during their summit in June. Meanwhile, the proposal for the organization of a future Combined Forces Command was not approved.
No policy has experienced vicissitudes like transferring wartime operational control due to changes of political power in South Korea or security situations of the Korean Peninsula. Following an agreement during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, Seoul was supposed to regain OPCON from Washington in April 2012. But that timing was postponed to December 2015 during the Lee Myung-bak administration, and delayed again virtually for good during the Park Geun-hye administration. The wordings of the joint statement appear to reflect President Moon’s pursuit of an early transfer, but the fundamental principles of the conditions-based transfer have not changed. Conditions mean that the South Korean military must secure core capabilities to lead the combined defense and at the same time, an environment must be created for the two allies to effectively manage security against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.
During a joint press conference, the allies’ defense chiefs underscored these conditions, the basis for the OPCON transfer. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said the allies share “an integrated process of a conditions-based transfer” and the United States will actively support South Korea in its takeover of wartime operational control, without mentioning the timing or speed. South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo explained it is not about moving up the date, rather completing the preparations necessary to regain wartime command.
Initially the South Korean Defense Ministry was known to be planning to build a foundation for self-defense by next year and check whether the future Combined Forces Command has all the conditions in place for the transition by carrying out joint exercises and trainings in three years from now. However, such an idea will specifically be discussed in the next year’s Security Consultative Meeting. It is in the same context that the draft for the formation of the future command failed to be approved. The allies reached an agreement that the existing Combined Forces Command will be replaced by the future command whose commander is a South Korean four-star general with a U.S. four-star general as his deputy. However, we must double check whether this plan is indeed under the present circumstances.
At this year’s Security Consultative Meeting, the two allies have also agreed to expand the rotational deployment of U.S. strategic military assets, including stealth strategic bombers and nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, to the Korean Peninsula and its surrounding area to better deter the North Korea’s ever-growing blatant nuclear and missile threats. This is exactly the core of the conditions-based transfer. President Moon, who had pledged to complete the retrieval of South Korea’s wartime operational control “within his term” during the presidential campaigning, later announced to aim for “an early retrieval” when he unveiled his administration’s policy agenda with 100 specific items in July. It is still unclear whether “early” means within or after his term, nevertheless, in my view, there has been a change in perception that it is important that South Korea has the preparatory conditions as early as possible for the transition of wartime operation control.