[Column] Why OPCON transfer conditions are subject to change

Posted on : 2021-02-25 17:32 KST Modified on : 2021-02-25 17:32 KST
US position on the OPCON transfer may well vary according to its strategy
Kim Jung-sup
Kim Jung-sup

By Kim Jung-sup, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute

“If the United States places restrictions on the employment of its troops in wartime due to a premature decision by the Republic of Korea to force OPCON transfer, this would likely fracture the longtime alliance and put the Korean people at great risk of falling under the North Korean regime.”

In a statement to Voice of America on Feb. 10, retired general Burwell Bell, who served as commander of the ROK/US Combined Forces Command during the Roh Moo-hyun presidency, warned that a transfer of operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean military should not be attempted while North Korea is armed with nuclear weapons.

It’s quite a shocking claim. Bell is arguing that if the OPCON transfer goes ahead, the US may decide not to devote itself to the role of alliance partner, while North Korea is very likely to repel the South’s military.

Given that these words are coming from a former US military commander in charge of operations for the entire Korean Peninsula, they should not be taken lightly. Even in South Korea, many are vocally insisting that an OPCON transfer would be premature as long as the North Korean nuclear threat remains present.

But is that really the case? An OPCON transfer would signify a change in the South Korea-US alliance’s military command structure. US Forces Korea would be maintained, and the Combined Forces Command system would remain unchanged. The only important change is that a South Korean general would be commander, while a US general would be deputy commander.

But what does it mean to suggest that North Korea would "ultimately defeat Republic of Korea forces in battle” and that the South Korean people would “fall under the North Korean regime”? Is the message here that the US’ pledge to defend the Korean Peninsula is not based on the national interests and shared values of South Korea and the US, but solely on the nationality of the CFC commander?

As the US-China rivalry intensifies, the Joe Biden administration has been stressing the importance of restoring alliances. What country is going to trust its destiny to the US if it were to forsake its alliance at the crucial moment?

This isn’t just about the alliance. If the US were to fail to guard its non-nuclear ally South Korea against a nuclear threat, the entire global nonproliferation system would be plunged into crisis. That system is inextricably tied to the nuclear umbrella: a pledge of extended deterrence provided by nuclear powers to allied nations.

In effect, there is a tradeoff between the pledge to protect non-nuclear countries from nuclear threats on one hand, and individual countries refraining from arming themselves with nuclear weapons on the other.

It is certainly necessary to boost the South Korean military’s capabilities for responding to the North Korean nuclear threat. This would also help for when the South Korean military assumes command and takes the initiative in exercising OPCON.

But the North Korean military threat is fundamentally something that needs to be addressed through the alliance’s capabilities, not by the South Korean military on its own. In that sense, responding to the North Korean threat should properly be understood as something for South Korea and the US to work on together before and after the OPCON transfer — not some crucial variable or condition for the transfer itself.

So why did Bell make the argument he did? This is not just about the personal views of one retired general. Why does the US government keep dragging its feet on the OPCON transfer issue, focusing only on meeting “preconditions”?

One major consideration may simply be that the US does not want to let go of the military reins on the Korean Peninsula amid a security environment that is fluid because of its rivalry with China, among other factors. It may also be concerned about its control over the South Korean military weakening at a time of crisis, such as a localized clash.

The important thing to consider here is that the US position on the OPCON transfer may well vary according to its own strategy.

In 2007, the Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush administrations agreed to a transfer in April 2012. At the time, it was actually the US that sought to move up the transfer timeline.

The South Korean Ministry of National Defense was thrown for a loop when then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called for the transfer to take place ahead of schedule in October 2009, asserting his trust in the South Korean military’s capabilities. At the time, the US had become mired in the “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hope was that USFK — which had become something of a fixture — could be employed in a more flexible way.

As this shows, the OPCON issue is subject to change, as are the US’ policies regarding USFK and the alliance with South Korea. Even if South Korea were to concede on who gets to be commander, it wouldn’t be tying the US down. This is another reason we shouldn’t be putting off an OPCON transfer that would serve to boost the South Korean military’s capability to plan and wage war and strengthen its leadership role in the Korean Peninsula’s defense.

After campaigning on a pledge to pursue an OPCON transfer, former South Korean President Roh Tae-woo ultimately struck a deal that involved only the transfer of peacetime operational control. In his memoirs, he would write, “It is an embarrassment for a sovereign state not to possess its own command authority.”

Thirty years later, the same arguments about a “premature” handover that we saw in the 1980s are gaining ground once again. It troubles me to think that in the 2050s, 30 years from now, we may end up still blaming things on our “serious security environment.”

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

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