“If the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) becomes less likely or more delayed than what we hoped for, the conditions of the transfer should be revised,” said Won In-choul, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the parliamentary inspection of the administration on Thursday. “A proposal to verify the full operating capability (FOC) of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command under the leadership of the South Korean military was made to the U.S.,” said Won. “When the timing of the OPCON transfer is determined, the following steps will be taken based on the timeline.” His statement reveals the fact that the top leadership of the military will pursue the OPCON transfer to meet the target deadline, rather than meeting the key necessary conditions.
While there have been a lot of ups and downs during the negotiations between South Korean and the U.S. on the early OPCON transfer, the three major conditions – maintaining the core military capabilities of the South Korean military; response capabilities to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats; and the security environment on the Korean Peninsula – have remained unchanged. However, mentioning the possible revision of the conditions right before the ROK-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) to be held on Wednesday indicates that the South Korean military’s main focus is on achieving the OPCON transfer within the term of the current administration led by President Moon Jae-in. This is not much different from manufacturing a new airplane with a focus on meeting the shipping deadline regardless of its safety concerns.
South Korea and the U.S. had a plan to conduct a three-step verification of the operating capability of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command under the leadership of the South Korean military after the OPCON transfer. However, the FOC verification plan was canceled as the summer ROK-U.S. military exercises were reduced as a result of the absence of the soldiers from the U.S. mainland due to COVID-19. Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command, said the OPCON is unlikely to be transferred next year as the essential steps cannot be treated as a formality. While key preconditions are not met, the South Korean military is impatiently ignoring the necessity of the verification.
The OPCON transfer is a major shift that will change the fundamental framework of the South Korean security that has been built based on the ROK-U.S. alliance since the Korean War. In the case of war, hundreds of thousands of troops should be deployed from the U.S. mainland and the troops of South Korea and the U.S. should work in perfect order under a single command system. While the member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the countries and allies with a joint defense system transfer the OPCON to American commanders during the times of war, South Korea should build a new system, in which its military will exercise the OPCON. Therefore, preparing for and meeting the conditions of the OPCON transfer should be conducted without any room for inadequacy.
Even though President Moon pledged the OPCON transfer within his term during his candidacy and set it as a policy goal, such a security policy upon which the country’s fate is dependent should not allow any gaps. Hastily chasing the political schedule of the president, rather than carefully approaching based on the changes of the security environment, is not so different from self-destruction. Any holes in security due to the greed and obsession to add achievements during the presidential term that turn the security issue into a political tool should not be allowed.