[Editorial] Priority of joint S. Korea-US exercises should be OPCON transfer

Posted on : 2020-08-19 16:45 KST Modified on : 2020-08-19 16:45 KST
The inauguration ceremony for Gen. Vincent Brooks, then commander of USFK and the CFC, at the USFK Yongsan Garrison on Apr. 30, 2016. (CFC website)
The inauguration ceremony for Gen. Vincent Brooks, then commander of USFK and the CFC, at the USFK Yongsan Garrison on Apr. 30, 2016. (CFC website)

South Korea and the US’ joint command post exercise for the second half of 2020 began on Aug. 18. But the exercise has been scaled down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, causing some components of “full operational capability” verification to be delayed until next year, stripping the exercise of much of its purpose.

Verifying the full operational capability (FOC) of the future Combined Forces Command (CFC) is a prerequisite for transferring wartime operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean military. Even so, we don’t think it’s impossible to complete the OPCON transfer before President Moon Jae-in leaves office. The government should persuade the US to adjust the requirements or timeframe so the OPCON transfer can go ahead as planned.

The government has planned to wrap up the OPCON transfer by the end of 2021, following FOC verification this year and “full mission capability” (FMC) verification next year. That plan is in keeping with the conditional OPCON transfer approach agreed to by top defense officials from South Korea and the US in October 2014, under former South Korean President Park Geun-hye. The government needs to pay heed to numerous experts who are critical of this plan, arguing that the US is exploiting the verification process to delay the OPCON transfer.

The original timeframe of the OPCON transfer under an agreement reached by South Korea and the US during the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun was Apr. 17, 2012. Even though Gen. Burwell Bell, commander of US Forces Korea, said that the OPCON transfer could take place by 2009 given the operational capability of the South Korean military, the Roh administration reportedly delayed the timeframe as late as possible, until 2012, in deference to the Ministry of National Defense (MND). A former high-ranking security official argues that the OPCON transfer could take place at once given South Korea’s current economic and military prowess.

Given these circumstances, we think the government could consider adjusting the assessment schedule. FOC and FMC verification, for example, could be carried out at the same time next year. If that’s a non-starter, the OPCON transfer could go ahead next year following FOC verification, with FMC verification taking place after the next president takes office in May 2022. The US would have to be convinced to sign off on any such schedule changes. Since the OPCON transfer is contingent not on any actual conditions but on the government’s will, Seoul should obviously engage in deliberations with the US if that is what’s necessary.

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

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