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Another delay in wartime control transfer may serve allies’ interests

Washington could use delay as leverage in negotiations over burden-sharing cost

Another delay in South Korea’s retaking of wartime operational control from the U.S. may serve mutual strategic interests to maintain stability amid North Korea’s increasing nuclear threats, observers said Thursday.

Seoul has recently asked Washington to reassess the timing of the OPCON transfer, slated for December 2015, as security conditions on the peninsula have deteriorated in recent years with Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development.

Concerns have grown that Seoul might not be able to acquire the full range of capabilities to lead wartime operations by the end of 2015 in terms of military equipment, strategy and operational experience.

It particularly lacks intelligence-gathering assets such as military satellites and high-altitude surveillance aircraft ― key components of a low-tier missile shield and a preemptive strike system that it plans to build to counter the North’s missile threats.

The biggest concern for Seoul is the OPCON transfer could lead to a weakening of U.S. security commitment to peninsular defense and embolden an increasingly provocative Pyongyang.

Seoul officials believe Washington would positively consider its proposal for the delay.

“The U.S. official would not have talked about the proposal first (to the media) had it not been positively considering it,” Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin was quoted as saying during a meeting with ruling Saenuri Party officials.

He was referring to the official quoted in a local news report Wednesday.

For Washington, the delay could provide political leverage to help secure a bigger defense budget to help protect its key Asian ally.

Retaining the OPCON would also be in line with Washington’s rebalancing policy under which it has been deepening its strategic engagement in the Asia-Pacific emerging as a center of global power and wealth.

Pyongyang’s escalating nuclear adventurism also calls for a deeper U.S. engagement on peninsular security, experts pointed out.

The North has so far conducted three atomic tests including the latest in February and has been developing a missile with a range of around 10,000 km, far enough to reach the U.S. mainland.

While keeping wartime operational control, the U.S. can lead operations including the elimination of weapons of mass destruction in case of a contingency in the North, which could occur due to its deepening international isolation, poverty and public grievances toward the dictatorial leadership.

Washington has long been concerned about possible proliferation of nuclear materials to terrorists by a failed regime in the North, which could threaten the security of the U.S. and its allies.

Seoul’s apparent request for the second delay could also give Washington some leverage in ongoing negotiations over South Korea’s share of the cost for the upkeep of the 28,500 U.S. troops on the peninsula.

The allies are now in consultations over the so-called burden-sharing cost defined under the Special Measures Agreement that expires at the end of this year.

Some analysts also raise concerns that the U.S. could demand the South’s participation in its global missile defense program in return for the delay.

Washington has long sought to link South Korea to its global multi-layered MD program to better deal with missiles from potential adversaries such as Russia and China. But Seoul plans to develop an independent MD system, apparently not to provoke neighboring states including China and the North.

The allies are expected to make a more concrete road map for the transfer when their defense ministers and top military officers meet in October in Seoul for the Security Consultative Meeting and Military Committee Meeting, respectively.

Initially scheduled for April 2012, the transfer was first delayed to the end of 2015 in June 2010 amid Pyongyang’s continuing provocations, including the torpedoing of the South Korean corvette Cheonan that killed 46 sailors.

The allies agreed in 2007 to transfer wartime operational control in April 2012 as the Roh Moo-hyun administration had sought to enhance Korea’s military self-reliance and “balance” the alliance with the U.S.

By Song Sang-ho (