Opcon timing dashes Moon's hope for transfer
South Korea abandoned its goal of regaining wartime operational control (Opcon) from the United States by the end of President Moon Jae-in’s term next year, instead aiming to clearly fix a date for the transfer by the end of 2021.
A government source familiar with the Opcon plans speaking to the JoongAng Ilbo acknowledged it was no longer viable to complete the rest of a mandatory three-step military assessment process in time to realize the transfer by mid-2022, when Moon’s five-year term ends.
“In order to complete the handover within President Moon’s term, we would have to finish both the second and third phases within this year, but we cannot conduct the two assessments in the same year as per the Korea-U.S. agreement,” the source said.
“The reality is that even if we were to complete the second phase this year, a transfer within [Moon’s] term is impossible.”
Taking back Opcon, which would give a South Korean general command of allied forces on the peninsula during wartime, was a key security objective for Moon that buttressed his “Defense Reform 2.0” plan to modernize Seoul’s military.
In 2018, Korea and the United States agreed to kick off a three-step assessment of the Korean military needed to gauge Seoul’s readiness to take Opcon. The first stage, concerning initial operational capability (IOC), was completed in 2019, and the second phase — assessment of full operational capability (FOC) — was scheduled to be conducted last year.
But the Covid-19 pandemic forced the allies to scale down their combined military exercises, forcing FOC assessment to be postponed. The timing for the final stage, full mission capability assessment, has yet to even be discussed.
Friction over the process was evident during an allied defense chiefs' meeting in October, with U.S. officials reportedly rejecting Seoul’s request to release a joint statement stipulating FOC be carried out in 2021.
Such reluctance from Washington amplified suspicions in South Korea that the United States may have changed its mind about returning Opcon altogether, in light of growing security threats in the region stemming from a nuclear-armed North Korea and an aggressive China.
With no certainty on whether FOC assessment can take place this year, thereby dashing its hopes of completing the process by 2022, the Moon administration has instead revised its goal to negotiate setting a clearly defined and irreversible schedule for Opcon transfer.
“It is the intention of the Moon administration to negotiate a roadmap for the transfer with the United States that cannot be changed no matter which government comes to power” in Seoul, another source said.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration, the last liberal government that came to power in South Korea, aimed to complete Opcon transfer by 2012, but the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations agreed with Washington to delay the transfer indefinitely until Seoul met the necessary military criteria and the peninsula met certain “security conditions.”
To prevent a recurrence of such a situation, should the liberals lose power in Seoul next year, the Moon administration is planning to complete FOC assessment this year and reach a deal with Washington that sets a precise year for Opcon transfer, the source said.
The objective was to agree on this date at the next Security Consultative Meeting due to be held in Seoul this fall. Another source familiar with talks with the United States said once a target year was agreed on, FMC assessment could be scheduled for the year prior.
Whether the Biden administration would be conducive to such plans is another matter. U.S. President Biden’s newly appointed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he would review the status of the transfer plan without making specific promises.
Gen. Robert Abrams, who currently commands some 28,500 U.S. troops permanently stationed in Korea, said in a security forum last year there were “ways to go” until conditions were ripe for the transfer, noting that the requirements did not just involve completing the three assessments, but rather that Seoul would have to meet 26 other requirements.
Even if Seoul’s military was deemed fit, it remains to be seen how the allies will interpret other security conditions underlying the transfer, which stipulate South Korea’s capability to respond to the North’s nuclear and missile threats, as well as a “stable” Korean Peninsula.
BY LEE CHUL-JAE, KIM SANG-JIN and SHIM KYU-SEOK [email@example.com]