Minister sows confusion with transfer of Opcon comment

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Minister sows confusion with transfer of Opcon comment

National Defense Minister Song Young-moo stressed Tuesday that neither the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) nor American soldiers stationed in Korea will leave the country after Seoul regains wartime operational control (Opcon) over its troops from Washington.

The comment, relayed three separate times during a speech at a military seminar hosted by the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy in Yongsan District, central Seoul, raised eyebrows as it contradicted an earlier agreement by the allies to create a so-called “future combined forces command” to replace the current CFC.

According to a draft of that agreement shared between the two countries, a Korean general was to act as chief commander in the new structure, while an American general serves as deputy commander, which is the opposite of the current system.

Operational control of the combined troops belongs to the commander.

Korea’s military pushed to formally approve and discuss details of the future combined forces command in late October when Song met with his American counterpart Jim Mattis during the latest annual Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul, but the talks appeared to have failed to bear fruit.

A joint communique between the allies read that both sides “decided to continue to refine the draft through combined exercises and certifications.” An official with Korea’s Defense Ministry said at that time that Song and Mattis fundamentally agreed the future command will be structured as having a Korean commander and an American deputy commander, but that “other specific matters” were subject to further discussion.

Moon Sang-gyun, spokesman of the Defense Ministry, rushed to douse speculation that plans for the future command were aborted, saying Tuesday in a regular briefing that the allies remained unchanged about the new system, and that Song had meant the militaries would “maintain” the current CFC “system” due to its abundant benefits.

During his speech Tuesday, Song also mentioned that the Korean military was trying to fulfill the conditions needed to take back Opcon from the United States.

“President Moon Jae-in’s thoughts are my thoughts, and he’s never changed his mind” on the issue, said Song. Moon, according to the defense minister, has repeatedly stressed the need to “make sure [the Korean military] achieves an early fulfillment of the conditions for regaining Opcon,” adding that henceforth, “there would be no need to purposefully delay or advance the transfer.”

The joint communique of the Security Consultative Meeting stated that Song and Mattis pledged to make joint efforts to enable the “expeditious conditions-based transfer” of Opcon, while Song emphasized Korea’s commitment to complete the preparations necessary to exercise Opcon, such as “acquiring critical capabilities” in conjunction with the ongoing defense reform.

The ministry is in the process of creating a “Korean military-based offensive operation” for after it regains Opcon from the United States, Song highlighted, adding that 40 to 50 percent of the new plan has been designed. The new operation will minimize the time taken for U.S.-Korean forces to advance north of the border.

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