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Defense chief flies to US to discuss wartime role transfer

Defense Minister Suh Wook (front)  speaks at a parliamentary audit, Oct. 7, 2020. (Yonhap)
Defense Minister Suh Wook (front)  speaks at a parliamentary audit, Oct. 7, 2020. (Yonhap)
South Korea’s Defense Minister Suh Wook traveled to the United States on Tuesday to discuss the plan for Seoul to take over wartime operational control from Washington at an annual security meeting.

Breaking with convention, Suh made the trip to Washington on Korea’s Multi Role Tanker Transport, an aerial refueling tanker aircraft, partly to display the Air Force’s growing prowess and partly to reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus on a civilian flight.

“The handover of the wartime role, along with the North Korea crisis, will be the talking points,” a senior military official here said in a reference to the North’s recent unveiling of its latest ballistic missiles, suspected to be more advanced with multiple warheads aboard.

In a three-day trip, Suh is expected to talk with Defense Secretary Mark Esper about finishing stage two of a three-phase handover plan early next year and stage three later in the year, so they can wrap up the transfer by 2022 as scheduled before President Moon Jae-in leaves office in May that year.

The two sides missed out on testing stage two this year because their exercises were scaled back over coronavirus concerns.

Suh will likely address previously agreed conditions for the transfer -- namely, that Seoul must be ready to take on the wartime command against a nuclear-armed Pyongyang, and that the security landscape on the peninsula must remain stable.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff here told the parliamentary defense committee Thursday that changes could be made to those conditions, if the transfer were delayed.

The two allies will also discuss North Korea’s largest-ever intercontinental ballistic missile displayed at its recent military parade. The military here has yet to determine if the missile would work. Some experts say the missile was for show, given a lack of corroborating test launches.

A joint press briefing is set to take place Wednesday (US time).

By Choi Si-young (