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‘Seoul unlikely to reclaim wartime role from US during Moon’s tenure’

Gen. Paul Joseph LaCamera. (Courtesy of the US Army Pacific)
Gen. Paul Joseph LaCamera. (Courtesy of the US Army Pacific)
South Korea is unlikely to reclaim its wartime operational command from the US by May 2022 as South Korean President Moon Jae-in has pledged, experts told The Korea Herald.

Experts said little time is left in Moon’s tenure and the transfer will be delayed even after Seoul greets a new US military chief, as announced Friday. The new chief will replace Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of the United States Forces Korea who said it would be “premature” to set a date for the handover.

The two allies skipped joint drills this year over coronavirus concerns, which would have tested Seoul’s readiness.

“The new US commander will see the issue in a similar way. And the Biden administration will likewise highlight conditions to be met. There is little room for political maneuvering to expect otherwise,” said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Not much has been revealed about how US Army Pacific Commander Gen. Paul Joseph LaCamera, set to steer the 28,500-strong US forces here next year, will build on his predecessor’s objectives and policies. But experts agreed Washington will look at the handover on its own merits.

“Neither Democrats nor Republicans would make a political call and expedite the process. President Moon will unlikely see that happening before he leaves office in May 2022,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, agreed.

“The new USFK/UNC commander will take over the same missions as Gen. Abrams and pursue operational control transfer according to the conditions-based approach agreed to by the US and Republic of Korea rather than according to a political timeline.”

In a press conference held in late November, Gen. Robert Abrams, the outgoing US commander who also heads the United Nationals Command, said he had seen press speculation about a potential timeline for the transfer, but that he had never been informed of this.

“I haven’t had a declarative policy statement from any of the people I interact with that says, ‘hey, we are on a timeline,’” Gen. Abrams said.

Seoul’s push to take over the wartime role hit a snag after the two allies this year skipped testing stage two of a three-phase takeover scheme due to the pandemic, stoking speculation that the entire takeover plan could be pushed back.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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