Washington delayed Opcon handover plan

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Washington delayed Opcon handover plan

South Korea’s plan to regain wartime operational control (Opcon) over its troops from the United States, and eventually take Opcon over U.S. forces through the “future combined-forces command,” fell through last October when Washington refused to place its troops under Seoul’s control, several local government officials with knowledge of the talks exclusively told the JoongAng Ilbo this week.

Assuming Opcon from the United States has been a major priority for progressive President Moon Jae-in, who often speaks of the importance of “self-reliance” when discussing national defense.

The former conservative Park Geun-hye administration agreed with Washington in October 2014 that the transfer would take place in mid-2020 if the South is militarily prepared, and that the future combined-forces command will replace the current ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC).

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

In the current CFC, an American general acts as chief commander of the combined troops, while a Korean general serves as deputy commander. Operational control of the combined troops belongs to the commander.

Shortly after this year’s SCM, an official with Korea’s Defense Ministry said Song and Mattis fundamentally agreed that the future command will have a Korean commander and an American deputy commander, but that “other specific matters” were subject to further discussion.

According to several government sources who spoke with the JoongAng Ilbo last Monday, it appears the United States sought wartime control over any additional U.S. forces landing on the peninsula in the event of war, which would basically leave the country with far more authority despite its deputy-commanding role. Washington reportedly suggested it would place a lieutenant general as deputy commander in the future command, not a general, as originally planned.

Local military officials concluded that the United States is seeking to keep operational control over some 690,000 U.S. military personnel it is capable of calling in from outside Korea. Under this scenario, South Korea will only have Opcon over the 12,000 U.S. troop members already stationed here.

Local military officials said talks about the future command are still ongoing and that no official decision has been reached about the rank of the U.S. deputy commander. One source said that the United States told the South Korean side it “can’t trust” Seoul’s ability to control the allied forces due to its lack of understanding of the U.S. Pacific Command.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, PARK YONG-HAN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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