Be honest with peopleThere are many problems in Seoul requesting another delay in the timetable for transfer of wartime operational control from the United States. A U.S. official unilaterally revealed the Korean government made the proposal. At the same time, U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly opposed Seoul’s proposal by saying, “From a military perspective, the timing of the transfer of wartime operational control is appropriate.” Nevertheless, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin implied that Washington may have disclosed the Seoul request because it was positively reviewing the matter. But the real problem is that the government neglected to seek understanding and approval from its own people before pursuing such an important security matter.
Seoul and Washington agreed in 2007 to the transfer of operational wartime control from the U.S. to South Korea when President Roh Moo-hyun formerly made the request for sovereignty in defense and security. Many retired military officers and experts opposed the plan citing concerns in deterrence against North Korea, but the late president nevertheless pursued the hand off to take place in 2012. President Lee Myung-bak asked for a delay to his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama, and the timetable was pushed back to December 2015. Now the Park Geun-hye government has asked for another postponement. Seoul diminishes its credibility by overturning a promise between two states every time a new government takes office.
The South Korean military requested the delay taking into account North Korea’s heightened missile and nuclear capabilities since 2010 and fearing the 2015 transfer timing could tempt the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to dare another military provocation. It also argues it needs more time to build kill chain readiness and effectively deter missile attacks from North Korea. Its argument is persuasive in view of North Korea’s threatening nuclear and missile capacity.
But before blaming external factors, Seoul needs to ask itself if it has done all it can to meet the 2015 milestone. Ministry officials say military reinforcement plans have not gone according to schedule due to budget shortages. A radical defense upgrade action plan to better equip the military and take full control of its troops was also derailed during the last administration. The government should be honest with the public by admitting that it is not yet ready to meet the criteria to gain wartime control due to delays in its preparations before pursuing the delay. This is not an issue that should be decided among a few aides.