June 22, 2009
By Bruce Klingner
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Bruce Klingner, is senior research
fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the
First appeared in the Korea Herald
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.
Protect America Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
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