By Kang Seung-woo
With the need to achieve both an advancement in inter-Korean ties and recovery of wartime operational control (OPCON) of its military forces, the government here is in a quandary over how to program its springtime combined exercise with the United States.
As part of efforts toward inter-Korean reconciliation, South Korea is advised to consider suspending or scaling down the annual joint exercise that North Korea denounces as a rehearsal for an invasion, but considering its plan to regain OPCON from the U.S., Seoul is also required to carry out a set of large-scale drills to verify its preparedness.
On the one hand, the OPCON transfer, seen as the nation's restoration of military sovereignty, is one of the Moon Jae-in administration's major projects and it wants to take it over before the end of its term in May 2022. But on the other hand, the President also prioritizes engaging Pyongyang in his "peace efforts."
According to the Ministry of National Defense, the allies are in talks over how to configure the upcoming military drill in March.
Since the Hanoi summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un failed to reach a deal on denuclearization in February 2019, the allies have adjusted their joint exercises to revive stalled denuclearization diplomacy without provoking the totalitarian state.
In March 2019, they replaced Key Resolve, a simulation-driven command post exercise (CPX), with another CPX, Dong Maeng ― alliance in Korean ― while terminating Foal Eagle, a field training drill, and launching smaller-case exercises. In addition, Max Thunder, the allies' combined air exercise, was also scrapped.
Despite the downsized exercises, however, the North strongly responded with a show of force by firing two short-range ballistic missiles. In addition, the North Korean leader made a complaint of the joint exercise during his meeting with Trump at the border village of Panmunjeom in June 2019.
In fact, in his party congress report, released Saturday, Kim urged the South to "stop imports of latest military hardware and joint military exercises with the U.S."
"Worse still, they are getting crazier about modernization of armed forces, labeling our development of various conventional weapons, which pertains entirely to the just exercise of our sovereignty, a 'provocation,'" he said, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
In that respect, the Kim regime may stage a military provocation if the South and the U.S. carry out an exercise, which would deal a hard blow to the Moon administration which sees the first half of the year as the last opportunity within his term to pitch its peace initiative to engage the North.
"In any case, I would expect North Korea to criticize any drill that will take place," said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, the KF-VUB Korea chair at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium.
However, the plan to scale back or suspend the joint exercise could coincidently disrupt the South Korean government's timetable for the OPCON takeover.
Ahead of the OPCON transfer, the allies have been utilizing a three-phase verification process of initial operational capability (IOC), full operational capability (FOC) and full mission capability (FMC). However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they failed to fully assess the FOC last year, raising speculation that the transition may not meet the self-imposed deadline.
Although the South wants to hold a FOC-focused exercise as part of its efforts to expedite the transition process, the U.S. military maintains it should be meant to boost their joint posture through large-scale exercises rather than just focusing on preparations for the OPCON transfer.
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in October the OPCON transition to the South "will take time," while Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, also said last year, the three steps were not the only requirements the allies had to meet, and there were more to assess ahead of the OPCON transfer.
Plus, it remains to be seen if the exercises will be held as planned, with no signs of COVID-19 abating here.
"I do think that the U.S. will want to make sure that South Korea is adequately prepared for an OPCON transfer and if this means more robust exercise, the U.S. will advocate in that direction," said Ken Gause, the director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, adding that the U.S. is expected to decide, based on the South's input, USFK's input and the North's behavior.
Daniel Sneider, an international policy expert at Stanford University, also said that the allies should resume full-scale join drills and exercises.
"Operational capability and mission readiness has been undermined by the suspension of drills, and it has yielded very little in return. Time to restore the normal functioning of our security alliance," he said.
Pardo said the Moon government is likely to wait until the Joe Biden administration is in office to decide on the upcoming military drill.
"If it looks like the Biden administration is going to be willing to engage with North Korea and provides a clear roadmap in relation to wartime OPCON transfer, I would expect the Moon government to try to press for low-key drills," he said.
"But if the Biden administration is hesitant towards when OPCON transfer might take place, then the Moon government will be more willing to have full-scale drills."
Pardo advised the South Korean government to prioritize OPCON transfer over better inter-Korean ties.
"In my view, OPCON transfer is clearly more realistic than the re-start of a process leading towards inter-Korean reconciliation right now. And there will be opportunities for engagement with North Korea in the future anyway," he said.
However, Gause was not positive about the allies meeting the OPCON deadline.
"There will be challenges and unforeseen issues that crop up that will probably delay this. At the end of the day, OPCON transfer introduces instability into regional dynamics, which could undermine larger issues like denuclearization and engagement with North Korea," he said.