South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and his U.S. counterpart, James Mattis, attended the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in Washington on Wednesday to approve a bill to create a future combined command structure to help facilitate the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) over the Korean military. For the future command, which will replace the current Combined Forces Command after transferring wartime operational control, a South Korean four-star general is expected to take the commander’s role, with a U.S. general serving as deputy commander. Except for the top command system, the rest of the structure will remain the same. The two defense ministers also agreed to suspend the Vigilant Ace 2018 allied joint exercise, which had been slated for December.
The agreement struck in Washington has brought the Moon Jae-in administration one step closer to his goal of completing the transfer of wartime operational control by 2022. Skepticism prevailed about the structure of a future command as there was no precedent where the U.S. military put its forces under a foreign command, but the two sides clinched a surprise deal to have a South Korean commander for the new future command. For Washington, it must have been difficult to be adamant about placing a U.S. commander in the new command where South Korea is to lead the combined defense forces with OPCON in its hands.
The two countries also drew up a joint defense guideline, which will be put in place after transfer of OPCON. Reportedly, the guideline stipulates that the U.S. forces will continue to be stationed in South Korea, and that the current Combined Forces Command will stay in the form of a future combined command, guaranteeing augment of forces in the event of contingencies on the Korean Peninsula. “The agreement will help dispel the public concern over the security landscape of South Korea following the transfer of OPCON,” opined an official from the South Korean defense ministry. However, the fundamental shift of command system and its concomitant security concern will likely prove abiding.
The South Korean military must have the necessary capacity to lead the joint defense and respond to North Korea’s missiles and nuclear programs under the principles of “conditions-based transfer” of wartime operational command, upon which Seoul and Washington agreed back in 2014. However, the two countries’ joint military exercises are called off one after another, and when it comes to the establishment of a three-axis system, a core capacity to counter North Korean nuclear ambition, the Korean government is even hinting at the possibility of downsizing it, saying, it will review the agenda “flexibly” with the progress of North Korea’s denuclearization taken into account. In addition, Seoul is facing a dormant risk radiating from Trump’s view of alliance centered round his “America-first” mantra. In fact, Seoul must brace itself for potential blows dealt by Washington such as an increasing defense costs sharing, the burden of additional costs arising from deployment of strategic assets, and pressure to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea.
Such volatility attests to the fact that the government alone cannot handle everything. The responsibility to be assumed by the South Korean military is grave, and it must be equipped with the necessary capacity to deal with the task. And building such a capacity must be proceeded as a separate agenda from inducing denuclearization from North Korea. Should Pyongyang derail from the path to denuclearization this time, restoring the broken security would prove to be quite thorny. Perhaps this explains why the two countries did not provide a specific timeframe to transfer wartime operational control. As far as national security goes, experimentation is a luxury we cannot afford.