ROK, US at odds again on wartime OPCON transition issue

China Military Online
Li Wei
2021-12-24 17:32:33

By Li Haozhe

Lately, the ROK and US’ different positions on the time of the assessment drill on the Full Operational Capability (FOC) needed for the transition of wartime Operational Control (OPCON) reflected subtle divergences between the two sides.

According to the plan, the ROK and US militaries will verify and evaluate in three stages whether the Future Combined Forces Command (F-CFC) under the ROK commander is competent enough to exercise the wartime OPCON. The FOC assessment is the second stage between the first stage of Initial Operational Capability (IOC) assessment and the third stage of Full Mission Capability (FMC) assessment. The first stage was completed in 2019, but the second stage that was scheduled for completion in 2021 hasn’t even started yet due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors.

Yonhap News Agency quoted the US Department of Defense spokesperson John Kirby as saying that the US and ROK agreed to carry out the FOC assessment drill next summer and evaluate again ROK’s capability of exercising the wartime OPCON next fall. However, ROK Minister of National Defense Suh Wook said during a radio program that his US counterpart Lloyd Austin already instructed the US military to study whether it’s possible to carry out the wartime OPCON competence assessment drill next spring.

Considering the two different versions, analysts said either Kirby wasn’t updated on the behind-the-door consultations between the US and ROK militaries, or consultations are still underway. ROK’s Munhwa Ilbo reported that if the Moon Jae-in administration wants to determine the time of transferring the wartime OPCON within his term, it must complete the FOC assessment next spring. In comparison with Moon Jae-in’s simple and clear goal, Washington seems to have more calculations.

First, Washington tries to leave the matter to the next ROK administration. While Moon Jae-in wants to make some substantial progress on retrieving the wartime OPCON before he steps down, the US side thinks otherwise. ROK’s Newsis published an article saying that Washington may be considering re-negotiating the matter with the next ROK administration that will come in office next May. As the conservative and progressive groups in ROK don’t see eye to eye on the transfer of wartime OPCON, the US military may not give a definite answer until after the results of the ROK presidential election come out.

Second, the procedures are complicated for adjusting the drilling troops and the training schedule. Analysts said that the ROK-US joint military exercise in the first half of the year usually takes place in early March, which may be affected as it overlaps with ROK’s presidential election and related activities. If the assessment drill is moved forward to next spring, reported World Journal, the US military needs to mobilize troops from America, Japan or other places within about three months, for which the US may have to rearrange the pre-agreed training agenda and participating troops with other countries regarding the scheduled joint exercises. Therefore, it is unlikely to agree to ROK’s request as it had already re-deployed its overseas troops according to the Global Posture Review (GPR).

Third, the US wants to postpone the transfer of wartime OPCON as much as possible. Former US Forces Korea Commander Gen. Robert Abrams recently said that the transfer will not take place until 2028 at least. ROK media commented that by holding the wartime OPCON in its hand, the US can kill two birds with one stone – dispatching ROK troops if a war breaks out on the one hand and selling weapons and equipment to it on the other. The FY 2022 National Defense Authorization Act recently adopted by the US Senate said that to consolidate the Indo-Pacific alliance, it’s necessary to reinforce the alliance between the US and ROK and keep the US forces there at the current size of 28,500 troops. It’s clear that Washington doesn’t wish to give back the wartime OPCON to Seoul before it comes up with a plan that can make it hold more control and influence over the ROK military.




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