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U.S.-ROK Alliance Management: OPCON Transition and ISR
U.S.-ROK Alliance Management: OPCON Transition and ISR
Counting Down to North Korea’s Year-end Deadline
Counting Down to North Korea’s Year-end Deadline
Commentary / Asia

U.S.-ROK Alliance Management: OPCON Transition and ISR

An increasingly prevalent issue in Seoul-Washington bilateral relations is wartime operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean military. When President Obama travelled to Seoul in April, he and President Park agreed that they would review Seoul’s request to postpone OPCON transition now scheduled for December 2015. A decision is expected by October 2014 when the two sides hold their annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in Washington, DC. OPCON transfer had been scheduled to occur in 2012, but the transition was delayed in 2010 in the wake of North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009 and the sinking of the ROK  naval corvette Ch’ŏnan in March 2010.

In July 1950, shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War, President Syngman Rhee handed over operational control of the ROK armed forces to the U.S. In 1978, the Combined Forces Command (CFC) was established, forming a U.S.-ROK integrated command structure headed by a U.S. Army four-star general. While peacetime OPCON was transferred back to the ROK in 1994, wartime OPCON remains under the CFC. In the mid-2000s, under then President Roh Moo-hyun, negotiations began with the aim of transferring wartime OPCON back to the ROK. The Bush and Roh administrations agreed to complete the transfer by April 2012, at which point two separate U.S. and ROK commands would replace the CFC.

Seoul’s official policy is to delay OPCON transfer, but South Korea is divided on the issue. Many senior ROK military officers and retired generals view U.S. OPCON as insurance against abandonment, but the alternate South Korean view is that OPCON in Seoul’s hands gives the ROK more freedom of action and that it bolsters deterrence against North Korea’s provocations or limited attacks. The U.S. is divided on OPCON as well, but the Pentagon’s official position is to go forward with OPCON transfer as scheduled. The main reason the U.S. military supports the transition sooner rather than later is that the ROK will have to bring more military assets to support the alliance if Seoul is to assume operational control.

KOMPSAT-5 (Korean Multi-purpose Satellite – 5). PHOTO: KARI

The viability of OPCON transfer revolves around the nature of the North Korean threat and the ROK’s ability to deter and counter it. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are one of the most important elements in this debate. ROK armed forces must not only possess advanced weaponry but also the ability to deploy and use it accurately. The U.S. and ROK have military working groups to review the criteria and milestones to ensure that preparations are on target. In May last year, President Obama said that all was on track, but Crisis Group sources say “the South Korean side has expressed less enthusiasm for the working groups since OPCON transfer will not occur in December 2015”.

Seoul officially called for a further delay last year. In October 2013, ROK Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin stated that increased tensions on the peninsula and the fact that the North’s nuclear weapons “neutralise” South Korea’s conventional weapons make it “inappropriate to change the command structure as scheduled” for December 2015. Former USFK Commanders have also expressed reservations, citing the need for continued development of ROK defence capabilities, especially the modernization of its weaponry. Retired U.S. Army Gen. John Tilelli, who commanded U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) during 1996-1999, said Washington should accept further delay pending a thorough review of ROK defence capabilities. In January this year, retired U.S. Army Gen. James D. Thurman, USFK commander from July 2011 until October 2013, mentioned the DPRK’s “missile portfolio,” including long-range and road-mobile missiles, cyber warfare capabilities, and chemical weapons as most worrisome. However, Thurman’s predecessor, Gen. Walter Sharp, USFK commander during 2008-2011, believes that OPCON transfer should go forward as scheduled in the context of South Korea’s military modernisation and weapons upgrades. The Pentagon has recently shown more flexibility, speaking of the need for a “conditions-based” approach to the transfer. Of course, the U.S. has little choice but to maintain the status quo if the ROK refuses to take the steps necessary for OPCON transfer to occur.

The ROK is developing and deploying robust counterstrike capabilities to deter Pyongyang’s growing nuclear threat. But a robust ISR capability and greater interoperability of ROK defence capabilities are necessary for the credibility of Seoul’s conventional deterrent. Therefore, South Korea’s ISR capabilities are important for confidence in the ROK deterrent, and should that deterrent fail, ROK and allied ISR will be critical to defeat military aggression from the North or to deal with other contingencies.

Seoul has been outspoken in its desire to retaliate sternly against any future North Korean provocations. This sentiment was borne out of what some ROK political and defence officials viewed as an overly restrained response both to the sinking of the Ch’ŏnan and the shelling of Yŏnp’yŏng Island in 2010. With this in mind, the development of ROK weapons capabilities in addition to the possibility of OPCON transfer opens up broader issues related to future deterrence and crisis stability within the context of U.S.-ROK alliance dynamics.

Credible threats to strike back with greater force may strengthen deterrence by signalling to Pyongyang that future provocations would be too costly. However, if deterrence fails and the ROK delivers retaliatory strikes that are more extensive and robust than in the past, the danger of rapid escalation is real since Pyongyang could perceive the response to be the first wave of much larger military operations or the beginning of a full-scale war. In other words, if the U.S. were to relinquish wartime OPCON, the threat of counter-strikes against provocations such as the Ch’ŏnan sinking is more credible because the ROK military would perhaps feel less restrained  in seeking to settle some scores with the North. With Seoul in the driver’s seat the barriers to escalation could be reduced since Seoul appears to be less concerned about escalation and stability than Washington. As long as an American general is in command of the Combined Forces Command (CFC), stability will be viewed as more important than revenge against the [North] Korean People’s Army (KPA).

Despite ROK official policy to seek a delay on OPCON transfer, there appears to be a generational divide with younger Koreans viewing the issue through the lens of sovereignty and the ROK’s modernisation. Young South Koreans do not have memories of the Korean War or the South’s poverty and deprivation during the post-war recovery period. For them, U.S. OPCON is a relic from the Cold War that is inappropriate for a modern and capable ROK.

Time and demographic changes probably will resolve the OPCON issue for good; the democratic ROK eventually will acquire wartime OPCON when the public no longer supports the current arrangement. In October, the ROK defence minister and the U.S. secretary of defence likely will announce that OPCON transfer will be postponed once again. Seoul wants another delay and it has the bargaining advantage since it only has to maintain the status quo, which is U.S. wartime OPCON. Regardless of the decision, the ROK should continue to bolster its ISR capabilities by acquiring systems such as indigenous reconnaissance satellites and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). South Korea has deployed the multipurpose Arirang-3, which provides reconnaissance on North Korean missile and nuclear test sites, but due to its limited vision and longer rotation period the ROK remains dependent on the U.S. for more accurate intelligence. If OPCON transfer is postponed, Seoul should not use it as a pretext to rely on the U.S. for ISR and relax or abandon its plans to enhance its own ISR capabilities.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK). Reuters/North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)
Q&A / Asia

Counting Down to North Korea’s Year-end Deadline

North Korea is testing the United States, issuing threats and launching short-range missile tests while talks over its nuclear program have stalled. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Duyeon Kim explains what could be motivating Pyongyang’s escalation and what to expect in 2020. 

What is North Korea doing and what does it mean?

North Korea has taken a series of escalatory steps by conducting 13 missile tests (short-range and submarine-launched ballistic missiles) since May and lodging threats including an unwelcome “Christmas gift” it will present if the U.S. fails to propose a new deal by the end of the year. Pyongyang upped the ante again on 8 December, by claiming to have conducted a “very important” test at the Sohae satellite launching ground – likely of a rocket engine; five days later, it carried out another such test at the same facility to strengthen its “strategic nuclear deterrent”, another way of describing capabilities relevant for a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Pyongyang has been demanding a “new calculation” in Washington’s negotiating position.

Pyongyang has been demanding a “new calculation” in Washington’s negotiating position, by which it means a proposal closer to its desired terms. If its unilaterally-imposed deadline expires with no satisfactory deal, North Korea warned, it will seek “a new path”.

Pyongyang appears to have four objectives: first, to force Washington to propose a deal to implement the 2018 Singapore Joint Statement conforming more precisely to its terms before the year is out; secondly, to raise international concerns about a return to the dangerous situation of escalatory rhetoric and actions that prevailed in 2017; thirdly, to continue improving its missile technology; and last, to lay the foundation for justifying more aggressive actions it may decide to take next year by saying Washington left it no choice.

The two tests at Sohae this month­ – a facility Trump claimed that Kim promised to dismantle when they met in Singapore in June 2018 – are thus significant for technological and political reasons. Based on satellite imagery, Pyongyang appears to have tested an engine that could be used in an ICBM or satellite launch vehicle. Perfecting these technologies through repeated testing would bring North Korea closer to acquiring reliable nuclear weapons capable of reaching the U.S. and Europe. With the Sohae tests, Pyongyang seems to be implying that it might scrap its moratorium on testing long-range missiles, which it imposed unilaterally in April 2018. Indeed, on 12 December, one day before the second engine test, North Korea’s foreign affairs ministry said the country would take “countermeasures corresponding to anything the U.S. opts for” , in reference to a UN Security Council meeting that discussed recent missile tests. It added that by convening the meeting, “the U.S. did a foolish thing that will boomerang on it, and decisively helped us make a definite decision on what way to choose”. This statement could be read as a threat of an ICBM test to come if the year-end deadline lapses without a satisfactory U.S. proposal.

What is North Korea implying by referring to a “new calculation”?

In his 2019 New Year’s Day address, Kim Jong-un warned that if the U.S. did not follow through with North Korea’s reading of U.S. commitments under the 2018 Singapore Joint Statement, he would find a “new way” (or “new path”) to defend his country and achieve peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. After the 2019 March Hanoi summit, Pyongyang has been demanding a “new calculation” in Washington’s negotiating style. Then, in an April 2019 speech before the Supreme People’s Assembly in Pyongyang, Kim warned that Washington had until the end of the year to present a new “political calculation method”. That new calculation could be one that reverses the U.S.’s desired negotiation sequence.

Historically, in nuclear negotiations with North Korea, the U.S. and other parties involved have demanded Pyongyang first take, or agree to, some significant, credible and verifiable steps toward denuclearisation before beginning to reap benefits ­– such as sanctions relief, economic aid, normal diplomatic ties with the U.S. and security guarantees including a peace regime (ie, a comprehensive system of norms, institutions, and rules on the Korean peninsula that ensures lasting peace underpinned by a peace treaty to replace the current armistice).

Pyongyang’s new negotiating posture appears to reflect the regime’s increased confidence.

In contrast, Kim may now be testing how far he can go in demanding that North Korea first be rewarded – through the lifting of key UN Security Council sanctions and an end to all U.S.-South Korean joint military drills (most of which have already been cancelled as part of Trump’s gesture to Kim at the Singapore summit) ­– before it agrees to hold meaningful discussions on its nuclear weapons, let alone take any significant, credible, and verifiable steps toward denuclearisation.

Pyongyang’s new negotiating posture appears to reflect the regime’s increased confidence, born of the important strides it has taken toward manufacturing far more sophisticated nuclear weapons and missile technology than under Kim’s father or grandfather’s leadership.

What might happen if North Korea’s year-end deadline lapses without progress?

Among the many paths from which Pyongyang might choose if the deadline expires without a U.S. proposal it deems satisfactory, two in particular bear watching.

In the first, it might continue with the gray-zone provocations it has been conducting since May – actions below Trump’s apparent ICBM and nuclear test threshold, including short-range ballistic missile tests, submarine-launched ballistic missile tests, missile engine tests and cyberattacks. It might go further by testing a satellite launch vehicle. Kim could choose this option if he perceives Trump would retaliate militarily if Pyongyang crossed his assumed ICBM and nuclear test red line (drawn in 2017).This scenario still presents upsides for North Korea: it would be able to continue improving its missiles’ precision; could keep fine-tuning and mass-producing its nuclear weapons and might ramp up operations at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. Meanwhile, it could continue developing what it calls a “self-reliant” economy, with Chinese and perhaps Russian help, and perhaps strengthen ties with the like-minded countries (“socialist countries and … countries that are friendly to” Pyongyang) Kim mentioned in his 2019 New Year’s Day address.

In a second scenario, Pyongyang could go farther and resume ICBM and perhaps nuclear tests, blaming the U.S. for the breakdown in diplomacy. Were Pyongyang to go down this route, however, it could prompt a harsh reaction from Washington and set in motion a dangerous dynamic. It would, therefore, be important for China, a key North Korean ally with some leverage over its economic development, to privately admonish Pyongyang to steer clear of this path even if diplomacy with Washington were to fail.

North Korea’s decision will likely be based on its perception of the U.S. administration’s intentions and actions.

North Korea’s decision will likely be based on its perception of the U.S. administration’s intentions and actions, and whether it feels that Trump has ignored its year-end deadline or maintained an attitude Pyongyang deems “hostile”. North Korea would consider elements such as the U.S. president’s rhetorical attacks, the conduct of U.S.-South Korean joint military drills, human rights criticism, or a finding by the U.S. administration (or another government) that a North Korean entity has violated international sanctions in making this assessment.

Kim may have settled on details of his “new path” at a rare, multi-day Workers’ Party meeting that began on 28 December. North Korea’s state media has provided hints of what he said, reporting that the plenary meeting of the Party’s Central Committee laid out a “transparent anti-imperialist independent stand” for the country and discussed “offensive measures for fully ensuring the sovereignty and security of the country as required by the present situation”. The plenary party meeting, one of the country’s highest decision-making bodies, also reportedly discussed a range of economic and domestic issues, suggesting that the meeting is teeing up Kim’s New Year’s Day address that will likely reveal details of his “new path”. This speech is significant because it outlines Pyongyang’s domestic and foreign policy priorities and work plan for the coming year.