|South Korean Army soldiers prepare to fire 105 mm howitzers during an exercise in Paju, South Korea, near the border village of Panmunjom. (AP-Yonhap News)|
North Korea’s growing threat is feeding a fresh dispute over whether South Korea is fully ready to retake wartime operational control from Washington in December 2015 as scheduled.
The highly divisive issue came to the fore last week when former U.S. Forces Korea commander Burwell Bell, once an outspoken supporter of the OPCON transfer, retracted his position, stressing that the North must be “aggressively contained” under U.S leadership.
“The U.S. must first offer to the South Korean government an opportunity to permanently postpone the OPCON transfer,” said the retired general who led the 28,500 American troops on the peninsula from 2006-2008.
“It is my strong position now that if approved by the South Korean government, all efforts to execute the OPCON transfer should be halted. Once armed with nuclear weapons, the North will possess a capability that will put the South at a significant disadvantage on any future battlefield, or in any future negotiations.”
After Pyongyang conducted a third nuclear test on Feb. 12, opponents of the transfer began raising concerns, arguing that Seoul was not yet capable of leading combat operations in terms of military equipment, strategies and experience.
But proponents said the preparations should proceed as planned, arguing that Seoul had relied too heavily on Washington for peninsular defense for too long, and that whether its military could stand on its own was a matter of national pride.
During the presidential election last year President Park Geun-hye pledged to push to retake the OPCON as planned.
Seoul and Washington will start assessing Seoul’s readiness during the allies’ Key Resolve command post exercise in March next year and the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills in August, a government source said on condition of anonymity.
The biggest concern for the skeptics is that the U.S. security commitment could weaken under a combined force structure where South Korea leads battle operations with the U.S. only providing support.
Kim Yeoul-soo, a security expert at Sungshin Women’s University, said Washington could deploy some U.S. troops here, whose primary role is to deter the North, to other conflict areas more frequently under the so-called strategic flexibility policy.
“After the transfer, the U.S. will be considerably free from the heavy responsibility for peninsular defense and feel freer to apply the so-called strategic flexibility in its management of troops on the peninsula,” the professor said.
“In the first place, we should have discussed the issue based on the changing security environment rather than having the date fixed for the OPCON handover. Plus, it is a completely different story should the North have a credible nuclear capability.”
The two countries agreed in 2007 to transfer wartime operational control in April 2012 as the Roh Moo-hyun administration sought to enhance Korea’s military self-reliance and “balance” the alliance with the U.S.
But amid continuing provocations by the communist neighbor including the sinking of the corvette Cheonan, his successor Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed in 2010 to delay the plan to December 2015.
To prepare for the transfer, Seoul has been improving its military capabilities and force structure in close coordination with Washington. But experts said Seoul still had a long way to go, particularly considering the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities.
“Should the U.S. security commitment dwindle here, there are only nuclear weapons and their delivery means to handle the North Korean military threats,” a security expert said, declining to be named.
“We have a good deal of conventional war-fighting capabilities compared with North Korea, but in order to prevent North Korea’s misjudgment, we should have some independent means to counter its nuclear capabilities.”
He added North Korea’s misjudgment could come when the South Korea-U.S. alliance dips to its lowest ebb.
“After the OPCON transfer, the relationship between the allies naturally faces ups and downs over time. It could go down, hit the bottom, bottom out and go up again. When it hits the bottom, the North could misjudge and believe it could attack South Korea,” he said.
Lee Choon-kun, security expert at the Korea Economic Research Institute, said following the OPCON transfer, the provocative North would be further emboldened and even think it could attack despite its disadvantage in terms of conventional weapons.
“The North would think it would fight against the U.S. when Washington holds the operational control. But after the transfer, the North could be tempted to provoke Seoul as it would fight against the South, not the U.S.,” he said.
“Deterrence is all about psychology regardless of whether you have decent military equipment such as how many radar systems, missiles and other high-tech weapons you have.”
Seoul is obviously superior to Pyongyang in terms of high-tech weapons including precision guided bombs and radar systems. But it is still lacking in core intelligence assets such as a surveillance satellite ― a reason it has relied heavily on the U.S. for monitoring North Korean movements.
“In terms of the C4ISR system (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), there is a huge gap between South Korea and the U.S.,” said Kim Tae-woo, nuclear security expert and former head of the Korean Institute of National Unification.
“Seoul is in the process of establishing the system and it should capitalize on the world’s best U.S. system to enhance deterrence against North Korea.”
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com