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Seoul is in a dilemma between inter-Korean relations and OPCON transfer

Seoul is in a dilemma between inter-Korean relations and OPCON transfer

Posted January. 14, 2021 07:42,   

Updated January. 14, 2021 07:42


Ahead of the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, the Moon Jae-in administration of South Korea is mulling over new ways to retake wartime operational control (OPCON) from Washington, which fell through during the Trump presidency, before Moon’s term ends in May 2022. However, things have gotten complicated as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said during the eighth Congress of the ruling Workers' Party that inter-Korean dialogue can be resumed only when South Korea and the U.S. suspend their joint military drills. South Korea is in a dilemma, because it needs to verify its operational capability for the OPCON transition through joint military exercises with the U.S. but doing so could invite strong opposition from North Korea.

The South Korean military reportedly plans to begin talks with the U.S. on the transfer of OPCON after Biden is inaugurated, with an internal plan to complete the full operational capability (FOC) and full mission capability (FMC) tests for the transfer of OPCON through ROK-US joint military exercises this year. One of the conditions for OPCON transition is completing a three-phase verification process designed to assess the military capability of the future Combined Forces Command (CFC).

Last year, the South Korean and U.S. military authorities were unable to conduct the planned FOC test as their joint military exercises got delayed or downsized amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the U.S. reportedly said during the 52nd ROK-US Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in Washington, D.C. in October last year that the FOC test cannot be held this year either, considering the aftermath of the pandemic and the military readiness of South Korea.

Thing have gotten more complicated after the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un publicly demanded Saturday that ROK-US joint military drills be suspended, saying South Korea has continued to ignore the North’s repeated warning that it should stop its joint military exercises with the U.S. Seoul has expected that talks on OPCON transfer will go smoothly with the new Biden administration. Instead, it has been put in a situation, where it has to push for OPCON transfer without provoking North Korea.

For this reason, there are concerns that the South Korean and U.S. military authorities, which are currently under discussion on the planned joint military exercises in March, may disagree over the details of the drills. The South Korean military is expected to propose that the two countries maintain the reduced size of the exercise, which is a computer-simulated Command Post Exercise (CPX), considering the protest from North Korea and the COVID-19 pandemic, but conduct the FOC test at the same time.

It is unclear whether Washington will accept Seoul’s proposal. Chances are that Washington will focus on checking the combined forces’ defense posture against North Korea, considering that Kim Jong Un vowed to advance the country’s nuclear capabilities. A South Korean government source said the U.S. Forces Korea have been concerned about the poor training conditions and a lack of training of the South Korean military, adding that Seoul may be at a critical juncture, where it has to choose between inter-Korean relations and OPCON transfer.

Kyu-Jin Shin newjin@donga.com