Seoul’s Defense Ministry came out Monday and denied a report that South Korea was seeking to set a date to retake wartime operational control over its troops from the US. A ministry spokesperson said the allies are working closely on the conditions-based wartime OPCON transfer.
Earlier Monday, a local daily reported that South Korea had abandoned its goal of regaining wartime operational control within President Moon Jae-in’s five-year tenure, which ends in May 2022, and instead aims to set an alternative date for the transition by the end of this year.
But the ministry spokesperson’s remarks stopped short of making it clear that Seoul will not be bound by Moon’s term of office in pursuing the envisioned transition.
Seoul and Washington have agreed that the planned transfer depends not on a timeline but on whether certain conditions are met. Still, the Moon government appears bent on completing the transition before Moon leaves office.
Apparently in step with the politically conceived timeline, Defense Minister Suh Wook and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Won In-choul said during their parliamentary confirmation hearings in September that they would strive to accelerate the wartime OPCON transfer to Seoul. Suh said the times called for it, and Won called the transition a “long-held yearning” of the South Korean people.
Won later told lawmakers that the conditions for the transition would need to be revised if the process were delayed for “too long.”
As agreed earlier by Seoul and Washington, the transfer can go ahead only on certain conditions: South Korea must have the capabilities to lead the allies’ combined defense mechanism and respond promptly to the North’s nuclear and missile threats. There must also be a stable security environment on the Korean Peninsula and in the surrounding region.
In technical terms, South Korea and the US remain behind schedule in implementing a series of tests that are also required for the wartime OPCON transfer.
The allies, which conducted an initial operational capability test in 2019, failed to move on to a full operational capability test last year, as they were compelled to scale down their joint exercises due to the coronavirus pandemic. The full operational capability test should be followed by a full mission capability test.
The second- and final-stage tests are not to be held in the same year. Therefore, it appears virtually impossible to complete the process before Moon leaves office, even if the full operational capability test goes ahead within the first half of this year as Seoul officials hope.
If shortcuts were taken to ensure the early completion of the process, this could pose severe risks to South Korea’s security and to the allies’ joint defense posture.
What is deepening such concerns is North Korea’s recent display of a range of upgraded weapons.
At a military parade in Pyongyang early this month, the North showed off a new submarine-launched ballistic missile and other state-of-the-art weapons, including KN-23 missiles, which resemble Russia’s Iskander.
The missiles, believed to be capable of being tipped with nuclear warheads, are designed mainly to hit targets in South Korea. Experts express concern that it would be practically impossible for the existing anti-missile shield deployed by the South Korean military and US forces stationed here to defend against these new missiles and multiple super-large rockets, if the North were to launch them simultaneously.
South Korea and the US now need to be more closely attuned to each other, so they can cope with the enhanced military threats from Pyongyang.
Understandably, US officials remain cautious about the pace of transferring the wartime operational control to Seoul. During a meeting with South Korean Defense Minister Suh in September, then-US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said it would take time to meet the conditions required for the envisioned transition.
In the face of what it describes as a “serious” threat posed by the North’s nuclear arms and ballistic missiles, the new US administration led by President Joe Biden also seems unresponsive to the Moon government’s eagerness to retake wartime operation control.
In phone talks with Suh on Sunday, new US defense chief Lloyd Austin underscored Washington’s commitment to South Korea’s defense through the allies’ combined defense posture and the US’ extended deterrent, according to a release carried on the Pentagon’s website. Austin, a retired four-star army general, is likely to reiterate Washington’s cautious stance on the wartime OPCON transition.
Seoul should no longer be preoccupied with the unrealistic goal of completing the transfer within Moon’s term. Instead, it should focus on how to enhance its capabilities to counter threats from Pyongyang in closer cooperation with the US.