It's Not Right Time to Discuss OPCON Transfer


It's Not Right Time to Discuss OPCON Transfer

Jun 22nd, 2009 7 min read
Bruce Klingner

Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia

Bruce Klingner specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs as the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia.

The U.S.-South Korean 2007 decision to transfer wartime operational control, or OPCON of South Korea forces to Seoul in April 2012 continues to be a lightning rod of controversy. The decision has obvious military ramifications, since it alters a fundamental precept of the bilateral alliance between Washington and Seoul. It also strikes a serious security nerve because it resurrects periodic South Korean fears of abandonment in the face of a continuing North Korean threat.

In addition, the issue has also become laden with contentious political overtones, making debate difficult given South Korea's polarized political landscape. Although the official transfer of command doesn't occur until 2012, the issue has returned to the forefront due to an ongoing petition campaign to delay its implementation that has generated 9 million signatures.

Delaying the transfer has become a quest for conservative South Korean legislators, former military officials and certain interest groups. The degree to which the Lee Myung-bak administration supports delaying the transfer, or whether it's a priority amid other pressing bilateral issues, is less clear. In the United States, the issue is largely unknown outside a small coterie of government officials and analysts. The prevalent view within Washington is to maintain the status quo of a completed decision and to review the situation closer to implementation. Indeed, the transfer mechanism agreed upon by both militaries already includes an integrated assessment and certification process to ensure South Korean security is not jeopardized.

From a U.S. perspective, OPCON transfer is a "non-issue" and therefore doesn't need to be addressed for some time. As such, it would be counterproductive for South Korean officials or legislators to appeal to Washington to formally reverse the OPCON decision at this time.

South Korea, of course, sees things differently. Critics of the original decision assert it was not based on security considerations but rather driven by President Roh Moo-hyun's ideological agenda to fundamentally alter South Korea's relationship with the United States. Roh described attaining wartime operational command as a matter of national sovereignty and pride to "overcome the nation's psychological dependence on the United States."

Roh's decision triggered widespread harsh criticism by all living former South Korean ministers of defense and hundreds of retired generals, accusing the president of sacrificing the country's security. In response, Washington pledged that its military capabilities, including air combat and strategic intelligence assets, would remain after OPCON transfer.

The election of President Lee Myung-bak in December 2007 inspired opponents of OPCON transfer to attempt to reverse the decision. South Korean conservative legislators began arriving in Washington to press their case even prior to Lee's inauguration in February 2008.

U.S. resistance to reopening the decision

U.S. officials in the Bush administrations were strongly opposed to reversing the decision and it appears that the Obama administration will maintain U.S. resistance. U.S. officials have expressed exasperation if not hostility to South Korea's repeated attempts to undo the OPCON decision.

Transferring operational command requires Seoul to implement a series of improvements to South Korean military forces. Although not totally synonymous with South Korea's defense Reform 2020 initiative, that program provides a metric for assessing progress in implementing necessary defense programs. The ambitious military modernization plan is to develop a smaller, technologically oriented defense force by upgrading technology, improving command and control systems, and procuring more capable weapons. Funding shortfalls have already delayed the program by five years. South Korean inability or unwillingness to fund its military requirements raises U.S. concerns over Seoul's resolve to fulfill its alliance obligations.

Deferring the OPCON transfer decision at this time would be seen by the United States as removing a necessary catalyst for South Korea to maintain its commitment to deploying the forces necessary to assume wartime command. South Korean advocacy for reversing the decision also risks calling into question the U.S. pledge to defend its ally. U.S. officials have repeatedly affirmed Washington's unwavering commitment to defend the Republic of Korea. Washington has emphasized that U.S. troop levels will remain at 28,500 in Korea. The introduction of extended accompanied tours, in which families will move to South Korea with service members, is also highlighted as another sign of a long-term U.S. presence.

Because the OPCON transfer won't occur for three more years, there is no need to fight a battle over it now. To do so unnecessarily risks introducing tension into the bilateral relationship, particularly at a time when the two allies should be focused on close policy coordination on a number of more urgent issues. The U.S. message to South Korea would be to choose your battles wisely and don't fall on your sword before it is necessary. In 2011, both countries may very well be in agreement to either delay or not delay the transfer.

Allaying South Korean security concerns

The negative impressions of OPCON transfer can be mitigated to some degree by careful bilateral planning in coming years. Washington and Seoul should seek common ground in transforming the bilateral alliance to incorporate enhanced South Korean military capabilities while maintaining an integrated U.S. role. A key facet of this is for the two countries to engage in a more proactive and transparent public diplomacy effort.

Such a campaign should address a number of areas. First, the United States and South Korea should publicly underscore that the planned 2012 transfer date is contingent on both a sufficient reduction in the North Korean threat and satisfactory progress in improving South Korean military capabilities.

Second, Washington should pledge to maintain not only current force levels but also existing United States ground combat and air defense units.

Third, Seoul should describe the programs it must implement to assume operational command and the timeline for completion.

Fourth, South Korea should affirm it will seek legislative support for necessary funding to achieve its defense objectives.

Fifth, the United States and South Korea should conduct a joint study on South Korean missile defense needs including possible integration into a multilateral ballistic missile defense system.

Separating CFC from OPCON transfer

Often overlooked in the OPCON transfer debate is that it also encompasses the dissolution of Combined Forces Command. Currently, U.S. and South Korean forces are closely integrated in a common effort to deter and defeat the North Korean threat through the CFC. The commander of CFC is a U.S. general (four star) supported by a South Korean deputy commander (four star) and a U.S. chief of staff (three star). Subordinate command units have a U.S. or South Korean commander with a corresponding deputy.

The ability of a single commander to direct multi-service forces from two countries is irreplaceable in ensuring unity of mission and achievement of objectives. The CFC commander, though subordinate to the presidents of the United States and South Korea, is the single captain of the team, issuing orders on the field. The disbandment of CFC in favor of parallel independent U.S. and South Korean commands runs counter to military logic.

Though both commands will communicate and coordinate through an Alliance Military Coordination Center after OPCON transfer, the loss of a unified command runs the risk of severely curtailing the ability of the United States and South Korea to fight in a coordinated manner. The resultant system has a greater potential for conflicting signals or diffusion of effort. Either can lead to military disaster.

Such a system also threatens the sense of purpose and justification for U.S. forces in Korea. The OPCON transfer could lead to reduced U.S. congressional and public support for maintaining a military presence on the Korean Peninsula. In the absence of a clearly articulated mission after the transfer, questions about the role of U.S. forces in Korea could lead to calls for an even greater U.S. drawdown.

As the United States and South Korea strive to enhance the existing military alliance and, indeed, expand it to a regional and international context, both countries should review the decision to disband CFC. Maintaining the existing integrated structure while reversing the command structure to put a Korean general in charge would appear to have significant advantages to parallel commands. A potentially contentious issue for Washington would be placing U.S. troops under foreign command. The ramifications of such a decision require further analysis but retaining CFC appears to have significant merit, even if the original OPCON transfer decision is maintained.

Focus instead on achieving a strategic alliance. Rather than raising a divisive issue such as OPCON transfer, both allies should focus instead on transforming the existing military relationship into the strategic alliance agreed to by Presidents Lee and Bush last year. Obama has affirmed the U.S. objective to have the alliance evolve beyond deterring North Korean aggression to address transnational threats such as terrorism, non-proliferation, energy security, trafficking in persons, and pandemics.

A year ago, U.S. defense officials in Washington and Seoul were frustrated by the lack of South Korean progress in defining its objectives or articulating its security responsibilities. Today, however, the United States feels much progress has been made on defining the strategic alliance, which will be defined in a U.S.-South Korean joint statement. Much positive work has been and continues to be done behind the scenes and out of the media spotlight.

U.S. and South Korean policymakers should proactively define the nature of the new alliance. Washington and Seoul should develop a joint strategic vision of the future purpose, objectives, and roles of the broader alliance and how it furthers the two countries' national interests. It will then be possible to identify the roles, missions, and required capabilities of the two militaries and then implement the broader alliance through procurement, deployment, and training. The two governments must then engage in extensive public diplomacy to gain public support for the revised military partnership.

A necessary first step is for President Lee Myung-bak to define his vision for the future of the bilateral relationship and South Korea's long-term regional and global role. He should develop a detailed strategic blueprint, similar to the U.S. National Security Strategy that articulates his administration's goals and the means through which they will be accomplished. The document should define South Korea's national interests, strategic policy objectives, and how the instruments of national power would be employed to fulfill them.

The Lee administration should also produce a National Military Strategy to define South Korea's perception of the near- and long-term threat environment, the missions assigned to its military to achieve national objectives, and the means required to do so. The South Korean military should more fully describe to the public the nature and scope of the North Korean and Chinese threats.

The U.S.-South Korean security alliance has been indispensable in achieving Washington's strategic objectives and maintaining peace and stability in northeast Asia. It is important that the alliance begins the evolution from a singularly focused mission to a more robust values-based relationship that looks beyond the Korean peninsula.

Without substantial and sustained involvement by the senior political and military leadership, the alliance may not be sufficiently adapted to the new environment, including as a hedge against Chinese military modernization. The U.S. and South Korean administrations must provide a clear strategic vision of the enduring need for the alliance to prevent an erosion of public and legislative support.

Bruce Klingner, is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in the Korea Herald