South Korea and the United States began the Crisis Management Staff Training (CMST) on Tuesday in preparation for the joint military drills in the second half of the year, which are scheduled from Sunday to August 28. The exercises will be scaled back as well as the Full Operational Capacity (FOC) test, a key part of the drills which evaluates the ability of South Korea-led ROK/US Combined Forces Command to meet operational needs. As a result, the full test has been postponed to the first half of next year, disrupting the government’s plan for wartime operational control transition.
The delay was inevitable with COVID-19 making it difficult for U.S. forces to travel to South Korea from the United States or from Japan. It is a relief, however, that the drills will go ahead as planned although scaled back considering that some South Korean government officials argued for the scale back or the cancellation of the joint exercises citing inter-Korean relations. The cancellation would have sent a wrong massage to North Korea and encouraged it to make a wrong decision, especially because Pyongyang is not engaged in talks with Seoul or Washington.
Completing the transfer of the wartime operational control is one of the goals the Moon Jae-in administration has, but it will have to adapt its goal according to changing circumstances. The South Korean military will have to prove its ability to control ROK/US Combined Forces Command under the guidelines on “the conditional transfer of wartime operational control” agreed by both nations. U.S. and South Korean defense ministers reaffirmed on a phone call last month as well that all the conditions must be met. The South Korean government should never rush it by taking a haphazard approach to the test.
Regaining wartime operational control will be a big step forward to achieving self-defense and transform the national defense framework. However, U.S. President Donald Trump might scale back or withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea, and the controversy surrounding the status of the United Nations Command continues. The transfer might undermine the alliance and national security. Seoul should not only remember that abilities do not come with the title but also make sure to enhance its capability to control joint operations and manage security risks and to strengthen military power.