[Analysis] The “most remarkable concession of sovereignty in the entire world”

Posted on : 2014-11-04 15:35 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Decision to once again postpone OPCON transfer leaves South Korea without key aspect of national sovereignty

The Park Geun-hye administration’s announcement on Oct. 23 that it is indefinitely postponing the transfer of operational wartime control (OPCON) from the US is triggering a backlash among critics, who are calling it a “forfeit of military sovereignty” and raising concerns about the potential threat to national interests and “security disaster.”

The administration has repeatedly said the transfer would be possible if “certain conditions are met.” Speaking at a National Assembly Q&A session on foreign affairs, unification, and security, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won said on Nov. 3 that “South Korea’s job is to meet all the conditions so that North Korea doesn‘t dare to get ambitious.”

“We are inferior to North Korea when it comes to asymmetric forces, so we ought to hold off the OPCON transfer until we meet those conditions,” Chung added.

But many experts say that by failing to nail down a timeline and ceding OPCON until conditions are met in terms of South Korean military capabilities and the regional security environment, the administration has more or less given up on the transfer. Some have starkly concluded that the administration has closed the door on its historical opportunity to take the military sovereignty that forms the linchpin of national sovereignty.

“This decision is nothing more or less than forfeiting military sovereignty and control of our own forces,” said former Minister of Unification Jeong Se-hyun.

Under the current military command system, OPCON powers over the South Korean military go to the ROK-US Combined Forces Command as soon as the DEFCON 3 defense readiness posture is reached following signs of imminent warfare. This means the decision on whether to go to war or not and the key aspects of wartime military authorities are handed over to a USFK four-star general before any conflict has actually broken out. Gen. Richard Stilwell, a former USFK commander, has called it the “most remarkable concession of sovereignty in the entire world.”

“The true significance of this decision is that a country that can’t decide for itself whether to go to war - a matter of the state and its people‘s survival - is voluntarily extending measures that basically make it a military protectorate,” said military affairs critic Kim Jong-dae.

There is a potentially grave threat to present and future national interests from the administration giving up on the transfer. In the case of Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, 17% remained in US hands even after South Korea paid the massive sum of 10 trillion won (US$9.2 billion) in relocation costs. Another criticism holds that Seoul is flirting with the diplomatic disaster of getting caught in conflict between Washington and Beijing.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the crimp the decision puts in South Korea’s longstanding dream of building an elite military.

The decision to postpone the OPCON transfer means the current division of labor stays the same: USFK handling intelligence and command control, South Korea acting as the “hands and feet,” especially with its army.

“Any hopes we might have had of becoming a major military power with our own deterrent by trimming the Army’s fat and the dreams of investing in our intelligence capabilities and our joint Army-Navy-Air Force firepower have now vanished,” said Kwon Young-geun, a reserve colonel and onetime Korea National Defense University religious office director who now heads the Korea Defense Reform Institute.

Some within the military are grumbling over the decision by the administration and military leadership to give up on the transfer, even as they continue spending over US$30 billion a year on defense.

“We can’t be open with our criticisms because of the nature of the military organization, but when I get together with my colleagues, we‘re seething,” said one field officer on condition of anonymity. “We’re thinking, ‘It’s not like we don’t have the capabilities. What kind of military is this?’”

Politicians are facing harsher criticisms than ever before. Many in civil society are blasting them for their casual attitude - a stark contrast with the controversy that raged over allegations during the 2012 presidential election that late former President Roh Moo-hyun had “ceded” the Northern Limit Line.

“Never mind the ruling party, which used the NLL allegations during the elections - when they weren’t even true - yet welcomes something that really is a clear abandonment of sovereignty,” said Park Jeong-eun, co-director of the secretariat for the group People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. “The truly pathetic side here is the opposition, which let itself get dragged around then and continues to act helpless now.”

“The National Assembly needs to set up a special committee to get to the bottom of this forfeiture of sovereignty, and set up a ratification requirement to prevent future security disasters,” Park said.


By Son Won-je, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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