[Editorial] S. Korea must not give in to pressure from US to increase defense costs and delay OPCON transfer

Posted on : 2020-10-16 17:59 KST Modified on : 2020-10-16 17:59 KST
Minister of National Defense Suh Wook (left) and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper (right) discuss joint security issues at the 52nd South Korea-US Security Consultative Meeting at the Pentagon on Oct. 14. (AP/Yonhap News)
Minister of National Defense Suh Wook (left) and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper (right) discuss joint security issues at the 52nd South Korea-US Security Consultative Meeting at the Pentagon on Oct. 14. (AP/Yonhap News)

The South Korean and US defense ministers openly revealed their differences on the issue of the return of wartime operational control (OPCON) at the 52nd Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in the US on Oct. 14.

In his opening remarks, South Korean Minister of National Defense Suh Wook emphasized the aim of hastening the OPCON transfer process. In contrast, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper emphasized the “conditions” that would need to be met, maintaining that “fully meeting all the conditions for the transition of operational control to a ROK commander will take time.”

The US’ position is based on the premise of a conditionally based transfer as agreed upon by the two sides in 2014. At the time, South Korea and the US agreed on three conditions for the OPCON transfer: the South Korean military establishing the key capabilities to lead combined defense, acquiring the necessary early response capabilities for the North Korean nuclear and missile threats, and managing inter-Korean and regional intelligence in suitable conditions for a stable OPCON transfer. Three stages of testing and assessment procedures are currently underway. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two sides have been unable to complete full operational capability (FOC) testing and assessment for the Future Combined Forces Command, which represents the second of the three stages.

But former South Korean Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo recently argued that the conditions and procedural stages for the OPCON transfer are not “preconditions” for the transfer to take place, but “points for verification.” According to his line of reasoning, any shortcomings in terms of meeting the conditions simply need to be supplemented and corrected after the transfer has taken place. A precedent for this was set at the time of the peacetime operational control transfer in December 1994, which took place after a deferment condition known as Combined Delegation Authority (CODA) was put in place for six duties, including management of combined intelligence for early warning purposes.

The wartime OPCON transfer could potentially go ahead before the end of President Moon Jae-in’s term in May 2022, and a “conditional transfer” approach such as the one used in the peacetime OPCON transfer could be considered if any shortcomings are identified. One gets the sense that the US’ insistence that the conditions are “unchangeable” represents an attempt to delay the transfer. We hope the US will actively take this precedent into account in the OPCON talks.

In addition to his foot-dragging stance on the OPCON transfer, Esper also stressed the need to substantially increase South Korea’s share of defense costs, which was not originally part of the meeting’s agenda. “We must find a more equitable means of sharing the costs of our common defense, so it doesn't fall unequally on the American taxpayers,” he argued.

Esper’s remarks suggest that South Korea is some sort of freeloader relying on US Forces Korea (USFK) for its security, which is not the case. He also appeared to tie the currently deadlocked discussions on defense cost-sharing with the matter of USFK’s scale. The cost increase the US is calling for is outlandish, and the US presidential election is not far off. Seoul must not give in to Washington’s pressure.

South Korea and the US need to coordinate their differences while pursuing their mutual interests. Seoul should be establishing intermediate- to long-term measures for South Korea-US issues in various areas -- including politics and the economy -- with an eye toward the post-election situation.

Some observers in South Korea have been denouncing the administration for “undermining the alliance with the US.” This sort of attitude is not helpful at all for the national interest and should be avoided.

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

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