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Timing of OPCON Transfer

By Tong Kim

As the U.S. and ROK forces complete their annual combined exercises ― Key Resolve and Foal Eagle ― a controversy is continuing in some influential circles in Seoul and Washington regarding the concept, and especially the timing, of the transition of the wartime operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean forces from the United States to the Republic of Korea.

According to the current plan confirmed by the QDR (Quadrennial Defense Review) just released, the OPCON transition will be completed by April 2012. General Walter Sharp, commander of the U.S. Forces in Korea, has recently said the transition is ''on track." The ROK defense ministry spokesman and the Korean CFC deputy commander publicly supported General Sharp's plan of transition, saying that there would be no change in the plan.

The transfer decision was agreed upon by the governments of Korea and the United States in 2007. The transition would deactivate the Combined Forces Command (CFC) and after the transition, South Korea would assume the leading role, and the United States, a supporting role in defense against a North Korean attack. In place of the CFC, a joint U.S.-ROK military coordination center would be established along with the respective national commands ― probably along the structures of the ROK JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) and the USFK command.

Those who argue for a postponement of the transfer, at least until after the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, list multiple reasons: (1) South Korea would not be ready to counter an asymmetric threat from the nuclear weapons of North Korea, (2) the CFC, a proven alliance structure that worked 30 years, should remain intact, instead of moving to an untested, separate command system between the two allies, (3) the idea of the transition was based on dubious political considerations for sovereignty by former President Roh Moo-hyun, and partly by the political reaction of then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, and (4) the transition, if implemented, would weaken the Korean people's confidence in the U.S. commitment to the security of the South.

They also argue that the transition is ill-timed because: (1) 2012 will be big election years for both Korea and the United States, (2) there are increasing signs of instability in North Korea, which might lead to a sudden collapse of Kim Jong Il's regime, and (3) yet, the North is professed to become a ''strong and power country" by 2010, which marks the 100th birthday of DPRK founder Kim Il-sung and the North may stage a show of force possibly in the form of violence.

When Roh Moo-hyun proposed that South Korea take the OPCON from the United States, Rumsfeld said, ''It was natural" for Korea to take more responsibility of its own defense, in view of Korea's growth in economic and military capabilities ― which counted for more than 90 percent of the combined forces. Rumsfeld told Roh, ''You are pushing an open door," which Richard Lawless, Rumsfeld's top man on Korea policy interpreted as, ''We are ready tomorrow (for the transfer.)"

However, it is not important now to talk about the origin of the OPCON transfer. What's important now is to discuss what needs to be done to keep the plan or to delay the planned transfer, depending on the position you support.

U.S. defense leaders have always praised the high quality of the Korean forces in terms of training and readiness, expressing their confidence in the Koreans. It is true that the United States has also wanted to see the ROK government spend more resources for the burden sharing and acquire improved equipment and weapons systems, interoperable with U.S. systems. An independent OPCON exercise would require more war-fighting capabilities of all services, and particularly in missile defense. The ROK forces also need to build a state of the art C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence) system.

A part of the transition plan is that the United States will continue to provide ''bridging capabilities" that the ROK forces will not have ready by the time of transition. The U.S. will continue to provide an ''extended deterrent" to deal with the threat of North Korea's weapons of mass destruction. The United Sates will keep a four-star general's position in Korea, perhaps partly to ease the concerns of the South Koreans and probably to have an effective coordination with the ROKs and the other U.S. military commands that would be involved in the event of a contingency.

There is no plan for reducing American troops in Korea below the current level of 28,500. As base relocation plans proceed, mainly the relocation of the Yongsan post and eventually the 2nd Infantry Division to Pyongtaek, the U.S. forces will evolve from ''deployed" to ''stationed," meaning U.S. soldiers serving in Korea will have three-year tours accompanied by their families. The relocation plan is being delayed by at least three to four years now.

We have seen changes in policy and delays in implementation. At the time the OPCON transfer was decided, the troop level was planned to come down to 25,000 from 37,500, with the U.S. argument that the curtailment in number was reinforced by an increased tech-based capability. But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decided to stop at the current level of 28,500, an important change for security policy for Korea.

General Sharp and his people are working hard to make sure the ROK's deterrent capabilities, supported by the U.S. Air Force and other critical forces, are robust enough to take the OPCON on schedule. A showcase process goes through the exercises, including the Freedom Guardian command and control exercise, which is conducted under the ROK leadership. The USFK watches what the North Korean military is doing all the time to prepare for any contingency.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young recently questioned the appropriateness of the timing. He said it would be a ''worst case scenario," commenting that the transition issue ''could be resolved politically," presumably on the presidential level. President Lee, widely known to have good chemistry with President Obama, has not spoken on the issue.

The OPCON issue is a matter that should be looked at from the perspective of South Korea's vision. It also has to do with the South's policy on the North. Military deterrent is the indispensable way of protecting peace, but ultimately it is a political decision that bears on the issues of war and peace. Allocation of limited resources and the best utilization of them should be an integral part of the decision making process.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell's comments in Seoul last month that he took South Korean concerns about the OPCON ''seriously" and it was ''a matter for further high-level dialogue between the two countries" made some pundits wonder whether Washington may reconsider the transition if the Lee government raises it officially. But it seems to have been taken out of the context in that Campbell's point was to emphasize that the U.S. ''will do nothing to undermine the security or confidence" of South Korea. In other words, the transition would not weaken South Korea's defense.

Interestingly enough, those who want to stick to the transition timetable are diplomatic and military representatives of the Obama administration, including the U.S. theater commander in Korea who is in the best position to know whether South Korea would be ready for the transition on time. The Obama administration inherited President W. Bush's decisions on several security issues, especially on war against terror and the persisting problem on the Korean Peninsula.

Obama could face some opposition in Washington if he wants to delay the transition, as it would look like turning back the clock. To many in Washington, the transition was the right direction. They have confidence in their South Korean allies' capability to be more responsible for their own defense.

Why does South Korea not have confidence in its own capability to deter or defeat a North Korean attack? The answer will be a long one. What's your take?

Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at tong.kim8@yahoo.com.
By Tong Kim

As the U.S. and ROK forces complete their annual combined exercises ― Key Resolve and Foal Eagle ― a controversy is continuing in some influential circles in Seoul and Washington regarding the concept, and especially the timing, of the transition of the wartime operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean forces from the United States to the Republic of Korea.

According to the current plan confirmed by the QDR (Quadrennial Defense Review) just released, the OPCON transition will be completed by April 2012. General Walter Sharp, commander of the U.S. Forces in Korea, has recently said the transition is ''on track." The ROK defense ministry spokesman and the Korean CFC deputy commander publicly supported General Sharp's plan of transition, saying that there would be no change in the plan.

The transfer decision was agreed upon by the governments of Korea and the United States in 2007. The transition would deactivate the Combined Forces Command (CFC) and after the transition, South Korea would assume the leading role, and the United States, a supporting role in defense against a North Korean attack. In place of the CFC, a joint U.S.-ROK military coordination center would be established along with the respective national commands ― probably along the structures of the ROK JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) and the USFK command.

Those who argue for a postponement of the transfer, at least until after the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, list multiple reasons: (1) South Korea would not be ready to counter an asymmetric threat from the nuclear weapons of North Korea, (2) the CFC, a proven alliance structure that worked 30 years, should remain intact, instead of moving to an untested, separate command system between the two allies, (3) the idea of the transition was based on dubious political considerations for sovereignty by former President Roh Moo-hyun, and partly by the political reaction of then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, and (4) the transition, if implemented, would weaken the Korean people's confidence in the U.S. commitment to the security of the South.

They also argue that the transition is ill-timed because: (1) 2012 will be big election years for both Korea and the United States, (2) there are increasing signs of instability in North Korea, which might lead to a sudden collapse of Kim Jong Il's regime, and (3) yet, the North is professed to become a ''strong and power country" by 2010, which marks the 100th birthday of DPRK founder Kim Il-sung and the North may stage a show of force possibly in the form of violence.

When Roh Moo-hyun proposed that South Korea take the OPCON from the United States, Rumsfeld said, ''It was natural" for Korea to take more responsibility of its own defense, in view of Korea's growth in economic and military capabilities ― which counted for more than 90 percent of the combined forces. Rumsfeld told Roh, ''You are pushing an open door," which Richard Lawless, Rumsfeld's top man on Korea policy interpreted as, ''We are ready tomorrow (for the transfer.)"

However, it is not important now to talk about the origin of the OPCON transfer. What's important now is to discuss what needs to be done to keep the plan or to delay the planned transfer, depending on the position you support.

U.S. defense leaders have always praised the high quality of the Korean forces in terms of training and readiness, expressing their confidence in the Koreans. It is true that the United States has also wanted to see the ROK government spend more resources for the burden sharing and acquire improved equipment and weapons systems, interoperable with U.S. systems. An independent OPCON exercise would require more war-fighting capabilities of all services, and particularly in missile defense. The ROK forces also need to build a state of the art C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence) system.

A part of the transition plan is that the United States will continue to provide ''bridging capabilities" that the ROK forces will not have ready by the time of transition. The U.S. will continue to provide an ''extended deterrent" to deal with the threat of North Korea's weapons of mass destruction. The United Sates will keep a four-star general's position in Korea, perhaps partly to ease the concerns of the South Koreans and probably to have an effective coordination with the ROKs and the other U.S. military commands that would be involved in the event of a contingency.

There is no plan for reducing American troops in Korea below the current level of 28,500. As base relocation plans proceed, mainly the relocation of the Yongsan post and eventually the 2nd Infantry Division to Pyongtaek, the U.S. forces will evolve from ''deployed" to ''stationed," meaning U.S. soldiers serving in Korea will have three-year tours accompanied by their families. The relocation plan is being delayed by at least three to four years now.

We have seen changes in policy and delays in implementation. At the time the OPCON transfer was decided, the troop level was planned to come down to 25,000 from 37,500, with the U.S. argument that the curtailment in number was reinforced by an increased tech-based capability. But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decided to stop at the current level of 28,500, an important change for security policy for Korea.

General Sharp and his people are working hard to make sure the ROK's deterrent capabilities, supported by the U.S. Air Force and other critical forces, are robust enough to take the OPCON on schedule. A showcase process goes through the exercises, including the Freedom Guardian command and control exercise, which is conducted under the ROK leadership. The USFK watches what the North Korean military is doing all the time to prepare for any contingency.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young recently questioned the appropriateness of the timing. He said it would be a ''worst case scenario," commenting that the transition issue ''could be resolved politically," presumably on the presidential level. President Lee, widely known to have good chemistry with President Obama, has not spoken on the issue.

The OPCON issue is a matter that should be looked at from the perspective of South Korea's vision. It also has to do with the South's policy on the North. Military deterrent is the indispensable way of protecting peace, but ultimately it is a political decision that bears on the issues of war and peace. Allocation of limited resources and the best utilization of them should be an integral part of the decision making process.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell's comments in Seoul last month that he took South Korean concerns about the OPCON ''seriously" and it was ''a matter for further high-level dialogue between the two countries" made some pundits wonder whether Washington may reconsider the transition if the Lee government raises it officially. But it seems to have been taken out of the context in that Campbell's point was to emphasize that the U.S. ''will do nothing to undermine the security or confidence" of South Korea. In other words, the transition would not weaken South Korea's defense.

Interestingly enough, those who want to stick to the transition timetable are diplomatic and military representatives of the Obama administration, including the U.S. theater commander in Korea who is in the best position to know whether South Korea would be ready for the transition on time. The Obama administration inherited President W. Bush's decisions on several security issues, especially on war against terror and the persisting problem on the Korean Peninsula.

Obama could face some opposition in Washington if he wants to delay the transition, as it would look like turning back the clock. To many in Washington, the transition was the right direction. They have confidence in their South Korean allies' capability to be more responsible for their own defense.

Why does South Korea not have confidence in its own capability to deter or defeat a North Korean attack? The answer will be a long one. What's your take?

Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at tong.kim8@yahoo.com.

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