[Column] S. Korea’s senseless squandering of opportunities for OPCON transfer

Posted on : 2021-12-17 17:54 KST Modified on : 2021-12-17 17:54 KST
History will judge us for spending our defense budget on fancy weapons as if they could protect us while we lack the capacity to conduct our own wartime operations
Kim Jong-dae
Kim Jong-dae
By Kim Jong-dae, visiting scholar at Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies

South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said during a TV broadcast that the Korean government has decided to “assess the full operational capability of the future ROK-US Combined Forces Command next year.” Based on several media reports, it seems the Koreans would like the assessment to be held in March 2022, before the end of the current administration, while the US wants the assessment held in August 2022, after the next administration takes over.

Before Korea can gain wartime operational control (OPCON), it must check whether the future Combined Forces Command (CFC), under the leadership of the Korean military, has achieved three stages of readiness: initial operational capability (IOC), full operational capability (FOC) and full mission capability (FMC).

Considering that Korea’s defense minister is only now talking about the second stage of the assessment, when exactly will the final stage of verification be completed and OPCON come under Korean control?

According to comments by Robert Abrams, former commander of US Forces Korea, in an interview with the press, the OPCON handover won’t happen until 2028 at the earliest. And even that presumes that Korea satisfies all the detailed requirements — many quite challenging — that have been set for each stage.

That means that the Moon administration’s pledge to orchestrate an early OPCON transfer — interpreted as completing the transfer before Moon leaves office — was an unrealistic slogan from its very inception.

Even when we consider these various factors, it’s hard to understand why the OPCON transfer is being further delayed. It’s probably because the Moon administration is still trapped in the narrative of a “conditions-based OPCON transfer,” which the previous administration negotiated with the US in an attempt to postpone the transfer. The demanding requirements that are in place have naturally stymied efforts to make progress.

When we dig a little deeper, things are even more complicated. When the CFC is led by the Korean military in the future, the current Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System—Korea (CENTRIXS-K), which is operated by the US military, is supposed to be replaced by the Allied Korean Joint Command and Control System (AKJCCS), which was developed by the Korean military.

But the American military refuses to use this system, which it regards as unstable and compromised by security vulnerabilities. Two years after this issue first arose, the command and control system of the future CFC remains unclear.

Even if that issue is resolved, however, there’s also a lack of clarity about how many and which kinds of American troops would be sent to reinforce the Korean Peninsula in the event of a crisis. Korea has no say whatsoever in which American forces it will command and control, or for what purposes. That produces extreme ambiguity about the joint operational capability of the Korean army general who will lead the future CFC.

The military reinforcements that the US sends to Korea would likely be drawn up by the Indo-Pacific Command in what would be a complicated process. If the deployment gets wrapped up in American domestic politics, Korea may be forced to wait indefinitely with little say in the situation. Furthermore, the assessment of initial operational capability that was reportedly completed in 2019 was slapdash, only involving a single test.

Simply put, Korea has been running in place without making any progress for the past four years. The department in charge of the OPCON transfer hasn’t been run by experts who can draw up task lists and implementation plans based on intimate knowledge of joint operations — rather, it has been a plum post for promoted generals.

The Blue House officials in charge of security may have known how to manage inter-Korean relations, but they’ve lacked both the conviction and the ability to bolster national prestige while strengthening our sovereignty. Because those officials don’t have the strategic vision to respond properly to the US’ strategy of containing China, they’ve allowed Korea’s security policy to become increasingly tethered to the US.

Korea has paid a high price for its joint military exercises with the US: they have sabotaged inter-Korean relations. But if Korea hasn’t gotten anything out of those exercises, what’s the point? Then there’s the frustrating and indeed infuriating fact that a country that’s spending 55 trillion won (US$46 billion) of its defense budget to build a light aircraft carrier and homegrown jet fighters can’t move forward with modernizing its operational capability.

Showing off more fighters, submarines and missiles without preparing the software and hardware to lead joint operations is silly showmanship and hardly suitable behavior for a strategist. Whatever the cost, we ought to have adequately prepared for the OPCON transfer to augment our national autonomy and create a future in which we can take control of our own destiny.

History will judge us for lavishly spending our defense budget on fancy weapons as if they could protect us while we lack the capacity to conduct our own operations if war were to break out on the Korean Peninsula.

Unless we’re content to live as the Japanese do — leaving everything to the US military and footing the bill — we need to quickly rectify this military incompetence. The time has come for new strategists who can actualize a survival strategy for the Republic of Korea as we move courageously down the path to peace and unification, based on a firm foundation of sovereignty.

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

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