U.S.-ROK Alliance Management: OPCON Transition and ISR
U.S.-ROK Alliance Management: OPCON Transition and ISR
Interpreting North Korea’s Failed Satellite Launch
Interpreting North Korea’s Failed Satellite Launch
Commentary / Asia 5 minutes

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.

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