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Hasty OPCON transfer could repeat Roh administration's failure

Hasty OPCON transfer could repeat Roh administration's failure

Posted August. 29, 2017 07:08,   

Updated August. 29, 2017 07:48


“South Korea’s GDP amounts to 45 times North Korea’s, and the South Korean military has always expressed that our combat capability is inferior to the North’s, and that it is premature for the South to conduct operation independently, and how can (the public) trust the military?” President Moon Jae-in said in a debriefing by the Defense Ministry on Monday. “I have the fundamental question of what we (South Korea) have done with such huge amount of money, while North Korea has advanced its asymmetric combat capability. I regret that South Korea is relying on joint defense capabilities (of South Korea and the U.S.) even after injecting massive defense expenses.” Moon’s remarks were seen as harsh criticism of the military that the president as commander-in-chief unleashed, as he instructed the military to push for a strong defense reform.


Just as President Moon said, it is true that the South Korean military has been lacking viable combat capability to cope with the North’s nuclear and missile threats despite the former’s massive defense spending. It also cannot be denied that the South Korean military has been relying on the South Korea-U.S. joint defense regime rather than its own independent capabilities. For this reason, the president instructed the military to equip itself with independent capability in the so-called three key systems namely "Kill Chain," "Korea Air Missile Defense" and "Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation" systems. However, such criticism and instructions are inevitably construed as his denial and blasting of defense reform implemented by the previous administrations.  


In the opening of Monday’s briefing, President Moon expressed discontent by saying, “All of the past governments vowed defense reform, and why defense has not been reformed properly and why the South Korean military still cannot afford to exercise wartime operational control (OPCON) on its own." Defense Reform 2.0, which the new administration is pushing for, is being implemented to revive conventional reform agendas including balanced development of the three armed forces, reduction of military manpower, and OPCON transfer in recognition that Defense Reform 2020 that had been pushed by the Roh Moo-hyun administration collapsed during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations. Notably, all of the reform agendas are effectively subordinate to early transfer of OPCON from South Korea and the U.S.


No single policy was arguably more controversial than OPCON during the Roh administration. During that administration, South Korea and the U.S. agreed to OPCON transfer in April 2012, but the Lee Myung-bak administration put it off to December 2015, and the Park administration further postponed it to the mid-2020s. Even the postponement was conditional upon the assumption that South Korean leads joint defense and secures core military capabilities to cope with the North’s nuclear weapons and missile threats. So much so, the North’s asymmetric military capability has been advanced, and it is difficult for South Korea to secure capability to counter them. The sooner South Korea takes over OPCON based on its independent capability, the better it is. However, Seoul should not be overly hasty. Moreover, OPCON transfer should not be the goal of defense reform.