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Defense minister urges faster transfer of wartime Opcon

Jan 24,2018
Defense Minister Song Young-moo urged the military’s top brass on Tuesday to hasten preparations to take back Korea’s wartime operational control from the United States.

“The transfer is crucial to realize a reliable national defense suitable to Korea’s power and military capabilities,” Song said during a meeting at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “and to defend the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.”

He also urged the military to create a combined defense system with the United States under Korean leadership. The meeting was attended by about 200 senior officers of the Ministry of National Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army, Navy and Air Force as well as key operational units of the military.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff said it has focused on preparing a command structure that will be used after the transfer and that it has worked to improve the military’s capabilities so it can lead combined operations with the United States, which is one of the agreed-upon prerequisites for the transfer, in addition to a stable environment and an ability by Korea to counter North Korean nuclear and missile threats. To verify that these prerequisites have been met, one preliminary evaluation and three assessments are required, but the Ministry of National Defense presented a plan last week to speed up the transfer by skipping the preliminary evaluation, which is scheduled for 2019, and beginning immediately with the first assessment that same year.

Reporting to Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon on Friday, the ministry said it will update its plan and discuss it with the United States at the Security Consultative Meeting in October.

Song’s request echoes the sentiment of President Moon Jae-in, who has pushed for an early transfer since taking office in May. In his summit in July with U.S. President Donald Trump, Moon made an agreement with Trump to continue working to “expeditiously enable the conditions-based transfer of wartime operational control.”

Korea also agreed to focus on developing its 4D program, a defense strategy against North Korean nuclear and missile attacks that stands for “detect, defend, disrupt and destroy.” The plan requires significant arms investments. As such, Moon promised Trump in November that South Korea would buy a significant amount of arms from the United States.

To improve capabilities, 31 percent of the ministry’s 43 trillion won ($39.9 billion) defense budget will be spent on procurement projects this year. This will be increased to 33 percent next year and to 37 percent in 2023.

Seoul and Washington originally agreed in 2006 to make the transfer in 2012, but Moon’s two conservative predecessors delayed the handoff, citing a possible reduction in joint defense capabilities. Moon vowed during the presidential campaign to complete the change during his term.

One of the factors complicating the transfer is the restructuring of the current Combined Forces Command. Last year, Seoul pushed for a new Combined Forces Command with a Korean general acting as chief commander and an American general serving as deputy commander. The proposal was discussed at the security consultation by U.S. and Korean defense chiefs in October, but was not approved.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]