[Column] OPCON transfer negotiation started off on wrong foot

Posted on : 2021-03-08 17:19 KST Modified on : 2021-03-08 17:19 KST
Seo Jae-jung
Seo Jae-jung

By Seo Jae-jung, professor of international relations and political science at the International Christian University in Japan

It’s something that happens to all of us. You’re buttoning your clothes, but you find you have one button left and no hole to put it in. What happened? You started with the wrong one.

It doesn’t just happen when you’re getting dressed. When it comes to affairs of state, getting off on the proverbial wrong foot can have troubling consequences for many people. Administrations may find themselves in jeopardy; the country’s security may be threatened.

Appearing recently before a South Korean National Assembly steering committee, National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director Suh Hoon said that joint military exercises with the US would go ahead this March, albeit at a reduced scale.

The main reason that we are proceeding with the exercises, in spite of various difficulties, apparently has to do with the return of wartime operational control (OPCON). Suh hinted at a possible connection in his remarks, explaining that the “objective is to regain OPCON as soon as possible.”

Before the OPCON transfer can go ahead, exercises are needed to verify the full operational capability (FOC) of the future Combined Forces Command (CFC) that will wield control once it is complete.

So why does this “verification” condition apply to the OPCON transfer in the first place?

At the moment, the OPCON that South Korea should rightly possess as a sovereign state is instead exercised by the CFC. But if we had followed the agreement signed in February 2007, the transfer would have already happened in April 2012.

The reason OPCON still lies with the CFC — when the South Korean military should have assumed it nine years ago — is because the transfer was twice deferred: first by former President Lee Myung-bak and then again with the addition of new conditions by his successor Park Geun-hye.

Lee was aggressive in his efforts to delay the OPCON transfer. In the end, he succeeded at a June 2010 South Korea-US summit in getting the transfer date pushed back to Dec. 1, 2015. Not only did the Barack Obama administration balk at postponing the transfer, but it also reportedly indicated in working-level discussions that any postponement that was granted should be kept to a minimum.

Indeed, in those discussions, the US Defense Department explicitly shared the view that one to two years should be “enough.” Lee pressed hard, however, and in the end, they settled on a postponement of three years and seven months.

What were the Lee administration’s reasons for requesting the postponement? Officially, it pointed to the “Korean Peninsula’s security environment, including the North Korean nuclear threat.”

But the “North Korean nuclear threat” claims didn’t really hold water. The 2007 OPCON transfer agreement was reached even after the North had sent shockwaves through the peninsula’s security environment with its first nuclear test in 2006.

There was also a second nuclear test in May 2009, yet no mention of postponing the OPCON transfer was made at the South Korea-US Security Consultative Meeting late that year. Then-US Forces Korea Commander Gen. Walter Sharp went so far as to state in a US Congressional hearing in late March 2010 that there would be no issue with the OPCON transfer taking place in April 2012.

The crucial variable in changing these attitudes was the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan. Strongly playing up the likelihood that the corvette was deliberately sunk by North Korea, the Lee administration argued that the security environment had “changed.” The Obama administration agreed.

While the OPCON transfer was initially postponed due to theories of North Korean involvement in the Cheonan’s sinking that ran counter to the scientific facts, the transfer that was supposed to take place in 2015 ended up being postponed again in 2014. This time, it was the Park administration claiming “changes to the regional security environment.”

The US was re-examining the strategic value of USFK and OPCON as it pursued its “pivot to Asia” strategy. It emphasized how “beneficial” the South Korea-US alliance was for Northeast Asia, and how it contributed to the “peace and security of the international community.”

Major changes that would have caused major controversy any other time instead took place quietly at a South Korea-US summit on April 25, 2014. The South Korean public was still reeling from the shock of the Sewol ferry sinking on April 16 of that year.

The agreement between leaders was formalized in October 2014 as a “conditional OPCON transfer.” It was here that the conditions started to be applied, namely that South Korean and the alliance needed to establish key military capabilities and that the security environment on the peninsula and in the region had to be “conducive” to a stable OPCON transfer.

Billing itself as the product of the candlelight demonstrations of 2016 and 2017, the Moon administration has been doing its utmost to meet those conditions.

Ironically enough, it has found itself facing a dilemma: by acquiring the state-of-the-art weapons it needs to establish key military capabilities, South Korea risks provoking a reaction from the North that destabilizes the peninsula’s security environment. And if the alliance establishes those key military capabilities, that provokes suspicions from China, destabilizing the regional security environment.

Despite the Moon administration’s best efforts, we find ourselves heading toward a worst-case scenario this March: the joint military exercises alone go ahead without any FOC verification having taken place.

Anyone who has ever started off on the wrong button knows the reality: no matter how hard you try, you’re never going to get all the buttons in. There’s only one thing you can do, and that’s to start over, even if it takes some time.

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

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

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