Alliance ‘ironclad’: Defense chiefs
According to a readout from the defense chiefs’ meeting in Washington on Monday, U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said they would continue to support diplomatic efforts to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization while maintaining an “unwavering combined readiness posture.”
This includes coordination in areas like information sharing on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile activities, which are the subject of renewed scrutiny after the North reportedly restored a missile launch site on its western coast.
Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) in South Korea, briefed the ministers in the meeting on the Dongmaeng joint exercises conducted last month, which had been scaled back significantly from the allies’ previous annual Key Resolve drills.
Shanahan said the drills were “very successful” but added that the allies had “learned about improvements” that can be made to the fall exercises, an indication that the Dongmaeng drills may be revised in scope or form in the future.
In response to a reporter’s question about the possible impact of the smaller exercises’ on the allies’ military readiness, Shanahan denied that there was any reduction, but rather a buildup of capabilities.
“We want to make sure that there are no gaps, that we continue to build on these exercises,” he said.
Shanahan added that discussions would continue on both the March drills and those slated for September, a possible reference to a set of joint marine exercises by the two countries.
According to Abrams’ evaluation, the Dongmaeng drills strengthened the allies’ readiness and laid the “groundwork for the transition of wartime operational control,” or Opcon, from the United States to South Korea.
The transfer of Opcon would enable the South to take primary command of operations in the event of a war on the peninsula, which has long been an objective of successive governments in Seoul as a means to shore up its military sovereignty.
While South Korea gained peacetime operational control in 1994, the U.S. commander of the CFC continues to hold authority over all wartime operations. A document signed by Jeong and former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis last October highlighted a set of guiding principles toward an eventual transfer of that capacity to a South Korean four star general, with the United States remaining in a supportive role.
Before the meeting on Monday, Jeong said the United States and South Korea last month launched a special permanent military committee to discuss Opcon transfer involving the South’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Park Han-ki and Gen. Abrams. An official at the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff called the diplomatic channel “meaningful” in its role to evaluate Seoul’s capacity to undertake leadership with the transfer.
The two defense ministers affirmed close cooperation would be maintained to “expedite the fulfillment of conditions needed for Opcon transition,” starting with an assessment of South Korea’s initial operational capability (IOC), which defines the point at which a country is able to effectively deploy a military system at a minimum operational capacity. The allies will work toward a certification of South Korea’s IOC capacity by this summer, following further tests of Seoul’s military capabilities, until the conditions of the Opcon transfer are met.
Shanahan also expressed hope that the South’s Defense Reform 2.0 plan, Seoul’s ambitious plan to overhaul its defense structure, could contribute to the Opcon transition.
He added that the United States would continue to commit South Korea’s defense after the transfer takes place, as defined in the mutual defense treaty signed by the two countries in 1953.
Another subject of interest at the press conference ahead of the meeting was the Pentagon’s inclusion of Command Post Tango - the bunker designed to house the wartime headquarters of the combined command staff in Korea - in a list of projects that could be scrapped to pay for U.S. President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico.
According to South Korea’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday, the United States requested that the allies jointly maintain CP Tango, with the implication that the South would have to help pay for its upkeep. Shanahan did not provide an answer on the cost-sharing idea, saying it was not on the agenda for that day’s meeting.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [email@example.com]