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[Editorial] OPCON transfer

Seoul could retake wartime operational control from US after North Korea’s denuclearization

Retired South Korean generals recently proposed delaying the country’s retaking of wartime operational control of its troops from the US and relocation of the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command’s headquarters until North Korea’s denuclearization is completed.

Confirming the proposal had been made to Cheong Wa Dae, a presidential spokesperson said Monday that it was “just one of many opinions.” But the view expressed by nearly all former generals who served as deputy CFC commanders is not something to be ignored.

Seoul and Washington are now eyeing 2022 as the target year for OPCON transfer, which calls for a South Korean general to command the CFC with a US general taking a supportive role. The two allies have also tentatively agreed to relocate the CFC headquarters in central Seoul to a sprawling US military complex in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, 65 kilometers south of Seoul, by 2021.

The retired generals warned that changing the combined military preparedness while nuclear threats from North Korea still exist could cause a grave security crisis. As they have argued, the current CFC operational control system has been instrumental in preventing or managing critical situations since its establishment in 1978. The close distance between its headquarters and key state organs in Seoul can be seen as an essential element of its successful functioning.

At a bilateral security consultative meeting in 2014, the two allies agreed to decide whether to return wartime operational control to South Korea when certain conditions are met. Those requirements are Seoul’s capability to lead the allies’ combined defense mechanism, its capacity for initial responses to the North’s nuclear and missile threats and a stabilized security environment on the peninsula and in the surrounding region.

The 2014 agreement set no specific time framework. But South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has been pushing to complete OPCON transfer and the relocation of CFC headquarters within Moon’s five-year term, which ends in 2022. Washington also does not seem reluctant to hold discussions with Seoul on accelerating the envisioned moves.

The allies conducted the initial operational capability test last month to check if South Korea is on course to meet the required conditions. Their defense chiefs are expected to approve the relocation plan during their meeting scheduled for later this year.

In response to the proposal by the retired generals, the Defense Ministry reaffirmed that South Korea would be pushing for retaking wartime operational control and the relocation of CFC headquarters as envisioned.

But the security environment has deteriorated further, with the conditions for OPCON transfer unlikely to be met.

Since May, North Korea has conducted 10 launches of short-range ballistic missiles and rocket systems to improve its capability of striking targets, including US military bases, in South Korea and Japan. Seoul’s ability to respond to missile and rocket firings by Pyongyang is looking increasingly doubtful.

The North has shown no intention to discard its nuclear arsenal, though it recently expressed willingness to resume denuclearization talks with the US. Some experts warn that Pyongyang might increase its nuclear weapons by about 10 in the coming year to a range of between 30 and 40.

Weakening links in the trilateral security cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan could also amplify the potential risks of an ill-timed OPCON transfer. Seoul has irked Washington by scrapping a military intelligence-sharing accord with Tokyo, while resisting US demands for a sharp rise in its share of the costs of stationing American troops here. This discordant atmosphere is in contrast with the tightening of a cooperative posture among the North, China and Russia.

Seoul and Washington have also shown differences over the authority and roles of the US-led UN Command after South Korea retakes wartime operational control. Seoul officials seem to feel uneasy about speculation that the US might be seeking to strengthen the UNC in an attempt to keep control of the CFC after OPCON transfer.

A deepening of the discord over the future of UNC would add an unnecessary strain to the alliance at a critical stage of efforts to denuclearize the North Korean regime.

The Moon administration has cited the restoration of military sovereignty as a cause for its active push for OPCON transfer. But as in the case of European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which place their forces under US command in contingencies, wartime operational control is hardly perceived as a matter of relinquishing sovereignty elsewhere in the world.

Superficial pride can be pushed aside to ensure the security of a state, especially in the face of nuclear and missile threats from its immediate neighbor.