SEOUL — South Korea may soon take over the primary leadership role from the U.S. for wartime operations on the peninsula, following 65 years of American control.
During the 50th U.S.-Republic of Korea Security Consultative Meeting at the Pentagon on Oct. 31, U.S. and South Korean defense chiefs agreed on a set of measures to transform their military alliance. The agreement is meant to hand over more responsibility to the South for its national defense.
Currently, the U.S. four-star general of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command, or CFC, has the authority over the maneuvers of both U.S. and South Korean troops during wartime. South Korea retrieved its peacetime OPCON in 1994. The talks of OPCON transfer began a decade ago, but the transition effort has been hampered in the face of North Korea’s increasing military threats, including nuclear capabilities.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his South Korean counterpart Jeong Keong-doo signed a document of guiding principles, which highlight a conditions-based transition of operational control, or OPCON, of South Korean troops during wartime.
“In signing this document, we ensured the continuity for the ROK-led future CFC as it assumes the mission of our current U.S.-led CFC,” Mattis said at a news conference, calling his meeting with Jeong a “milestone.”
Both sides agreed to keep the CFC in place after OPCON transfer, but the command is to be under the leadership of a South Korean four-star general, with a U.S. commander assuming a supporting role.
“The national authorities of the U.S. are to appoint a general or an admiral to serve as the deputy commander of the post-OPCON transition CFC,” the strategic document reads.
Jeong said the foundation for OPCON transfer was agreed upon in the wake of diplomatic efforts to deprive North Korea of nuclear weapons.
The document also guarantees U.S. forces will continue to be stationed on the Korean Peninsula, dispelling concerns that the OPCON transfer may eventually lead to the pullout of American troops in South Korea.
Both militaries plan to verify the initial operational capability of South Korean troops next year and evaluate the full operational and full mission capabilities in the following years with the aim of completing the OPCON transfer before the end of the incumbent Moon Jae-in administration in 2022.
Striving for peace
Despite mutual commitment to a new combined forces framework, questions linger about the feasibility of the OPCON transfer and the effectiveness of South Korean-led wartime operations.
“It’s not desirable if the OPCON transfer is sought by political factors related to sovereignty, not by military factors,” said Chun In-beom, a retired three-star South Korean Army general involved in the planning of the OPCON transition.
“A top priority should be on deterring war on the Korean Peninsula and carrying out effective wartime operations in time of deterrence failure,” said Chun, who is now a visiting scholar at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “The OPCON transition must not be pressed for time, but it must be implemented in a stable and competitive manner based on conditions.”
Following three rounds of inter-Korean summits this year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in accelerated efforts to engage with North Korea, which has long feared of American-led combined forces capabilities, including nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and long-range bombers in the Asia-Pacific region.
After the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, major U.S.-South Korean military drills on the peninsula were halted, with a battalion-level joint exercise involving both countries' marines resuming Nov. 5.
The Koreas had also agreed on a series of tension-reducing measures, including the withdrawal of front-line guard posts. Upon an agreement made by the leaders of the South and North during a September summit in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, the two countries pledged to end hostile acts over land, sea and air from Nov. 1. To that end, the governments agreed to set up buffer zones in waters to the east and west of the peninsula, and establish no-fly zones in an area up to 40 kilometers from the military demarcation line.
Will this be a smooth transfer?
Kim Ki-ho, a defense professor at Kyonggi University, said the freeze of U.S.-South Korean war games is a major stumbling block to the evaluations of an OPCON transfer.
“Any unilateral exercise by the South Korean military is meaningless at this time. A key focus is to evaluate South Korean capabilities with the support of U.S. air and naval powers in different scenarios,” said Kim, who served on the CFC to oversee the planning and operations of joint and combined exercises. The retired Army colonel specifically cited the decision by Mattis and Jeong to suspend this year’s joint air exercise Vigilant Ace, used for allied airmen to practice airstrikes.
And under a South Korean-led command posture, he said, the deployment of U.S. strategic assets likely would not go as smoothly as it does under the leadership of U.S. commanders.
“Simply put, it’s different for someone to take responsibility to do something for himself, from someone to comply with a request of somebody else,” he noted. “That is, under a South Korean-led Combined Forces Command, the U.S. military could inevitably be more passive than before [and could] undergo more complicated procedures to implement plans.”
Jung Soo, a professor of defense management at Kookmin University, was more optimistic about South Korea’s OPCON takeover and the potential that Seoul will fill the vacuum of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. (South Korea is heavily dependent on the U.S. military for ISR.)
“The defense budget for improving defense capability has been requested to increase 13.7 percent next year, and much of the budget would be invested in establishing defense systems to deter nuclear threats as well as acquiring ISR assets,” Jung said. “I believe the OPCON transfer is possible for sure.”
Kim Dae-young, an analyst at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, expects the procurement of ISR systems for the South Korean military to pick up.
“I expect priorities of weapons procurement programs would be readjusted with more focus on improving C4I and ISR capabilities,” Kim said, referring to airborne surveillance and targeting platforms like the Northrop Grumman E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, as a key item for such a shopping list.
“In addition to JSTARS, the South Korean military [is eyeing] more airborne early warning and control systems, and more high-tech, longer-range drone systems,” he added.
But South Korea’s arms buildup plans could be frozen, if not axed altogether, amid talks of peace, said Shin Won-shik, a retired lieutenant general who served as deputy head of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Under a recent inter-Korean military agreement, the sides are supposed to consult any potential plan that could be construed as a hostile act in a joint committee,” Shin said. “That means any arms buildup plan could be affected or retarded by the de facto arms reduction deal with the North. In that case, South Korea’s defense readiness against potential threats would be weakened, to an extent, without proper augmentation of weapons programs, such as ISR assets.”
Jeff Jeong was the South Korea correspondent for Defense News.