By Jun Ji-hye
South Korea and the United States have agreed to speed up their negotiations for Seoul's prompt takeover of wartime operational control (OPCON) of its troops from Washington, raising expectations that the allies are drawing up a roadmap for the transfer as early as next October.
Defense Minister Song Young-moo and his U.S. counterpart James Mattis reached the agreement during their annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in Seoul, Saturday, to make joint efforts "to enable the expeditious conditions-based transfer of OPCON," according to their joint statement.
The two defense chiefs said their agreement was to implement steadily the decision made between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump during their summit in June in Washington, D.C.
South Korea was supposed to regain OPCON from the U.S. in April 2012 following an agreement in 2007 during the late President Roh Moo-hyun administration.
But following the sinking of the South Korean Navy frigate Cheonan in a North Korean torpedo attack in March 2010, the transfer was delayed to 2015. Moon's predecessor, Park Geun-hye, delayed the OPCON transfer again until the 2020s, but Moon pledged to move up the date during presidential campaigning. Moon was the chief of staff for the late Roh.
Song and Mattis agreed to update details for the conditions-based OPCON transfer by the next SCM that is expected to take place in Washington next October. This is raising expectations that details such as measures of enhancing a combined defense posture after the OPCON transition could be drawn up by then.
"Minister Song emphasized the Republic of Korea commitment to complete the preparations necessary to exercise OPCON in accordance with the signed Conditions-Based OPCON Transition Plan (COTP), such as acquiring critical capabilities, in conjunction with ongoing defense reform," the statement said.
One of the core preparatory works includes the formation of the proposed "future" command to replace the allies' existing Combined Forces Command (CFC) whose commander is a U.S. four-star general with a South Korean four-star general serving as his deputy.
During the talks, Song and Mattis were updated on the draft organization of the future CFC from the Military Committee Meeting, a consultation channel between the heads of their Joint Chiefs of Staff, but failed to approve the formation this time.
According to documents the Ministry of National Defense submitted to a National Assembly audit earlier this month, a South Korean four-star general would take charge of the future command with a U.S. general serving as deputy.
Sources said the two nations showed different opinions on how to compose the staff for the future command during the talks.
The joint statement noted that the two agreed "to continue to refine the draft through combined exercises and certifications."
Observers say the formation of the future command should be approved in next year's SCM to enable the prompt OPCON transfer.
During a joint news conference, Mattis stressed that the U.S. position on the OPCON transition has been consistent, vowing to actively support Seoul's pursuit to regain it.
The two defense chiefs also agreed to expand the rotational deployment of U.S. strategic military assets to the Korean Peninsula and its surrounding area to better deter the North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.
Strategic assets refer to high-profile weapons systems such as stealth bombers, and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines.
Initially, the two sides were expected to reach a conclusion to lift the limit on the maximum weight of warheads to be mounted on South Korean ballistic missiles, but failed to do so as well.
During a telephone conversation in September, Moon and Trump agreed to amend the missile guidelines for South Korea, last revised in 2012, to remove the limit on the payload of South Korean ballistic missiles in an effort to boost Seoul's self-defense capabilities. The current guidelines allow Seoul to develop a ballistic missile with a maximum range of 800 kilometers, but the payload for this missile is not allowed to exceed 500 kilograms.
At the time, presidential spokesman Park Soo-hyun said the two sides agreed to keep closely consulting about the details for the amendment, raising expectations that the amendment could be approved during this year's SCM.
But the joint statement only said, "In this regard, the Minister and the Secretary pledged to implement at the earliest opportunity the decision by the two Presidents to remove limits on missile payload under the Revised Missile Guidelines."