Terms of wartime OPCON discussed

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Terms of wartime OPCON discussed

In negotiating the terms for transferring wartime operational control (OPCON), the armed forces of Korea and the United States agreed this week to focus on the conditions of the transfer, rather than pinning down an exact deadline.

“The Korean military insisted that wartime OPCON should be transferred when Korea is ready, and its U.S. counterpart wanted to decide the exact time of transfer,” said a government source. “We narrowed down the discussion and decided to fix a target year, but to further discuss whether to put it off again after conducting an assessment of Korean armed forces two years before the transfer time.

“If the U.S. authority sticks to their target year, in 2020, then both countries will assess whether the Korean military is ready for wartime OPCON in 2018,” he added.

The decision was a part of the outcome of the two-day Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue that started Wednesday, during which the two sides discussed ways to strengthen their relationship and come up with countermeasures against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat.

The United States currently holds wartime operational control.

In the meeting, Seoul and Washington reportedly agreed on the factors to be reviewed in the assessment scheduled in 2018, adding the stability of the North Korean regime to factors previously determined, which include South Korea’s capacity to respond to Pyongyang’s nuclear attacks, according to another source.

The specific items to be assessed in 2018 include the stability of the North Korean regime and the predictability of its policies; the South’s ability to react to the North’s nuclear weapons and missiles; and whether South Korea will be able to conduct joint operations with the United States on the Korean Peninsula after taking over wartime operational control.

The debate over the transfer of wartime operational control first began in 2006 under the Roh Moo-hyun administration. In a meeting with former U.S. President George W. Bush, the two leaders discussed the transfer in an effort to strengthen Korea’s independent national defense capability.

The following year, the national defense ministers of both nations agreed to set the transfer year to 2012. The decision, however, soon faced intense criticism from experts, who argued that the takeover of wartime operational control would likely result in the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korean territory.

When Lee Myung-bak, part of the main opposition Grand National Party, the predecessor to the Saenuri Party, ran for president in 2007, he pledged to put off the transfer.

But the sinking in 2010 of the Cheonan warship, which was hit in the Yellow Sea by a North Korean torpedo, reignited the debate, and Lee agreed with U.S. President Barack Obama to delay it again to Dec. 1, 2015, saying that Seoul was not ready for the takeover. With the time of transfer nearing, the Park Geun-hye administration once again requested a postponement, citing the same reason. The government suggested that it could take over operational control in 2021 or 2022, while its U.S. counterpart suggested 2020 instead.

The transfer was delayed on the condition that Washington would keep its forces in Seoul. “The U.S. authority strongly asserted in the dialogue that the Korean government should accept certain requests or take over wartime OPCON in 2015 as scheduled,” a source said.

The terms contradict the existing agreement that the U.S. military would give its headquarters, the Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul, to Korea and move to Pyeongtaek by 2016. Further delaying the OPCON transfer will also put more pressure Korea when it comes to the discussion in 2018 over its share in financing the U.S. troops’ stay here.

The official results of the meeting will be finalized and announced next month.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO and KIM BONG-MOON[bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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