This post is authored by Jina Kim, research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA). It is part of a project conducted by the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation and Korea Foundation. This series of posts will address the transition of operational control (OPCON) on the Korean Peninsula. To further stimulate an open discussion of these issues, we would like to invite reader responses. Please contact Ellen Swicord at email@example.com for submission guidelines if you are interested in contributing a response.
Talks on transferring wartime Operational Control Authority (OPCON) to South Korea from the United States Forces Korea (USFK) have historically undergone unpredictable ups and downs. Every time Seoul and Washington decide to push discussions on OPCON transfer into the distant future, increasing threats from the North tend to suddenly reemerge following a brief moment of rapprochement between the two Koreas. Due to the outbreak of the North Korean nuclear issue in 1991, talks on the OPCON transfer previously scheduled for 1996 were postponed. In 2006, broader and deeper socioeconomic cooperation between North and South Korea loomed large as the allies agreed on the basic principles of the transfer. However, North Korea’s nuclear tests increased the alliance’s ability to respond and led to another review of the shifting of the roles of the South Korean and U.S. militaries. When Kim Jong-un’s regime began to accelerate the development of its missile capabilities in 2013, South Korea and the United States discussed postponement of the OPCON transfer scheduled for December 2015 and failed to reach an agreement on the appropriate timing. Instead, in 2014 the two allies set conditions that needed to be fulfilled for the transfer. In 2017, the United States and South Korea agreed to speed up preparations for an early and effective OPCON transfer, but concerns persist that the transfer must not be based on political timing. Most recently, North Korea walked away from negotiations on denuclearization with the United States and warned that it could resume some of the major tests it had suspended more than two years ago in the run-up to summit diplomacy with the United States. One may wonder if we can ever escape these repeated historical patterns.
Currently, public debate focuses on the “timing” of the transfer. Those who support the idea of expediting the transfer cite two reasons. One is that South Koreans will never have the chance to transfer OPCON if the level of nuclear threats from North Korea becomes the determining factor in an assessment of “the security environment conducive to an OPCON transfer.” Among the three conditions stipulated by South Korea and the United States at the 46th Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in 2014, South Korea’s acquisition of key military capabilities to lead the combined defense posture and effectively counter North Korean ballistic nuclear missiles will take significant time and effort. Still, it is not entirely unachievable. However, if ensuring stable security conditions on and around the Korean Peninsula requires elimination of the North Korean nuclear threat through complete denuclearization, this lies fully beyond South Korea’s control. Proponents of an expedited transfer also argue that now is the time for South Koreans to claim greater responsibility for safeguarding their national security by regaining OPCON from the United States. They argue that gaining greater autonomy in military affairs serves South Korea’s national interest by reducing uncertainties in the alliance system under the Trump administration. It is also consistent with South Korea’s ongoing efforts to increase its defense capacity through defense reform. However, though these arguments sound logical, they overlook practical issues.
While the allies agreed to the stages for moving toward the OPCON transfer, they did not agree on a fixed schedule with a specific target year. Only after the “three-stage assessment” will a decision be made about the transfer of wartime OPCON to South Korea, and this could be a long process. At the 51st SCM in November 2019, the two allies reviewed the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) results and decided to pursue an assessment of Full Operational Capability (FOC). The IOC process was verified during Command Post Exercises in 2019. However, the South Korean military must take the steps necessary for the FOC certification assessment because each echelon must be fully trained and equipped to meet criteria more rigorous than the IOC. The third stage is to assess Full Mission Capability (FMC), which requires an assessment of the material conditions of the South Korean military that would perform the missions. If this is intended to test maximum potential mission capabilities with demanding standards for the readiness of the South Korean military, heated debates may arise over the performance requirements, time frame for achieving goals, budget constraints and affordability, and other issues. Military considerations, not political aspirations, should guide the changes.
Those who call for an early OPCON transfer to South Korea emphasize the political implications of the transfer, describing it as a matter of gaining military sovereignty. However, the commander of the binational South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) answers to both national authorities. Under the current consultative mechanism through the SCM at the ministerial level and the Military Committee Meeting (MCM) between the South Korean and U.S. Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the two allies jointly exercise control over the CFC. This structure will remain after the OPCON transfer, and the Korean general in charge of the future CFC will continue to answer to both national authorities. That is, neither the United States nor South Korea have or will relinquish command authority, which is different from operational control. Command authority constitutes the authority to issue orders covering every aspect of military operations and administration, whereas operational control is a subset of command that entails the ability to assign tasks to armed forces. Foreign commanders lack the authority to perform tasks such as separating units, dividing supplies, administering discipline, or promoting and changing the internal organization. Therefore, the OPCON transfer does not require invocation of the so-called “Pershing rule,” which holds that the U.S. military does not assign command authority to a member of another country’s armed forces. To avoid unnecessary debates, public outreach and education will be needed to ensure that people understand the definition and scope of the responsibilities held by the CFC commander and associated changes caused by the OPCON transfer.
South Korea is committed to proactively acquiring the defense capabilities necessary to command the future combined defense system. However, practical issues remain unresolved. After the OPCON transfer, the South Korean commander of the future CFC cannot wear a UN Command (UNC) hat. So, the relationship between the UNC and CFC going forward must be established. A future war with a nuclear-armed North Korea will not be limited to a conventional conflict on the Korean Peninsula if North Korea is willing to use the nuclear threat to win an all-out war. This situation would require support from UNC rear bases in Japan and mobilization of multinational forces ready to engage in combat on the Korean Peninsula. The UNC, which the United States will continue to control, will play a critical role in facilitating force flow and logistical support. It is important to make sure that there is an effective coordinated defense mechanism between the CFC and UNC. How to establish relations between the South Korean JCS and the future CFC also remains uncertain. The South Korean JCS controls operations during peacetime, and the future CFC will take control of operations during wartime. Therefore, it is vital to maintain good working relations between the two to ensure smooth transition from peacetime to wartime operations.
Discussion on the OPCON transfer will remain controversial and raise numerous security concerns among both the South Korean military and the public. However, the transfer should be driven not by political concerns but by military planning and thorough analysis of the impact to the alliance combined defense posture, with a long-term view to minimize any risk associated with the change.