[Editorial] The OPCON transfer may be difficult but is absolutely necessary

Posted on : 2020-08-12 17:22 KST Modified on : 2020-08-12 17:22 KST
US Apache helicopters at the Camp Humphreys garrison in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap News)
US Apache helicopters at the Camp Humphreys garrison in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap News)

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s plan to complete the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces before he leaves office is looking less and less feasible. The problem is that South Korea and the US have scaled down the joint exercise scheduled for Aug. 16-28, causing some components of the verification of full operational capability (FOC) of the future Combined Forces Command (CFC), a necessary step toward OPCON transfer, to be pushed back until next year. That would cause a comparable delay in full mission capability (FMC) verification, the final assessment stage currently scheduled for next year, creating uncertainty about whether the transfer could even take place before Moon’s term in office concludes in May 2022. The OPCON transfer shouldn’t be postponed until the next administration. The Moon administration needs to make thorough preparations as it strives to carry out the OPCON transfer before Moon leaves office.

No time should be wasted in moving ahead with the OPCON transfer, which signifies South Korea’s recovery of its military sovereignty. South Korea and the US agreed to the OPCON transfer in principle back during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, but the transfer has been delayed until now largely because of the inaction of the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations.

The Lee administration postponed the OPCON transfer from April 2012 to December 2015, citing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and a North Korean attack that sunk the ROKS Cheonan. The Park administration decided that the transfer should only take place after certain “conditions” had been met in terms of the South Korean military’s combined operations capabilities and the surrounding security environment, without giving any concrete timeline.

After what amounted to an indefinite postponement, South Korea is now finding itself hamstrung by these “conditional” transfer guidelines. It’s for this reason that former Korea National Defense University professor Moon Jang-ryul declared, “Leaving the [OPCON] matter up to an ‘examination’ that amounts to approval from the US military is effectively the same thing as setting up different traffic lights and then granting the US the power to give the green light.”

The decision to leave part of the examination until next year appears to bear some connections with the US adopting a more negative attitude on the South Korean OPCON transfer amid its “new Cold War” with China. The discussions on the joint exercises reportedly saw some friction between the US, which insisted that there should be drills to “prepare for North Korean threats,” and South Korea, which maintained that the focus should be on OPCON. With Washington pursuing an Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at countering Beijing, it may have determined that it would be more beneficial to hang on to South Korea’s OPCON to keep the Korean Peninsula as a strategic outpost against China.

In the past, it was a proactive stance from the US that set the ball rolling for the OPCON transfer. For it to drag its feet on the transfer now -- citing the need for various “examinations” -- is not a positive development. Rather than letting itself get roped in by the US’ arguments, Seoul needs to vocally insist on a swift OPCON transfer. Our leaders should bear in mind that without that transfer, our military will not be able to establish its own operation plans or develop its own operational command capabilities.

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

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