The military authorities of South Korea and the U.S. are reported to have started a discussion on the status and the authority of United Nations Command (UNC) after Seoul takes back the wartime operational control (OPCON). This marks the starting point of adjustments to be made for the ever increasing concern over potential confusion in command between the UNC and the future Combined Forces Command (CFC), which will be established once the transition of OPCON is completed.
Currently, the posts of chief commanders of USFK, CFC, and UNC are concurrently held by an American general. Once the OPCON is handed over to Seoul, however, American’s commandership is limited to UNC, and for the new future Combined Forces Command, it is only allowed to hold the post of a deputy commander in chief. With the establishment of ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command in 1978, ceasefire maintenance became a job for the commander of ROK-U.S. CFC to execute under the instructions of UN forces commander. The two posts have been held by one person so far, but once the OPCON transition is completed, it will bifurcate into Korean and American militaries, inevitably causing confusion. Another point of concern stems from Korean commander’s lack of understanding about America’s weapons system.
The status of UNC is a sensitive issue that will dictate the future of the peace regime on the Korean Peninsula as well as that of U.S. forces stationed in Korea. For a long time, Pyongyang has made a case for signing a peace agreement and dismantling UNC. But Seoul has stressed the need of U.S. forces in Korea as balancer of security in North East Asia even in the presence of a peace agreement. The status and functions of UNC must not be swayed even in the face of a contingency in North Korea or during the phase of peace building in the future.
In October 2014, the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) between the two allies reached an agreement not to fix the timetable for the transfer of OPCON while taking into consideration the Korean military’s core military capabilities, its defense capacity to counter North Korean nuclear missiles, and the security environment of the Korean Peninsula and the entire region in pushing for the transition. But those are the minimal necessary conditions. The foundation of the alliance between the two nations, which must serve to bolster such conditions, is being eroded, owing to the deduction of joint military drills and defense costs sharing. Seoul’s economic relations with Tokyo are deteriorating so much as to put an end to GSOMIA. Recently, the successive deputy commanders in chief of ROK-U.S. CFC requested the presidential office to postpone the transition of OPCON and the relocation of Pyeongtaek military base until after achieving a complete denuclearization of North Korea, which reflects such security concern both directly and indirectly.
Others point out that the Moon Jae-in administration is in a hurry to complete the transition process before his term is over. In dealing with a major shift to a command system that will directly impact national security, it is a watertight, complete self-defense that matters much more than mere timing. Security must not be compromised over a blind pursuit of ideals or a certain timetable.