Last Thursday U.S. and South Korean officials agreed to postpone the transfer of operational control (OPCON) indefinitely. In peacetime, South Korea will remain in charge of its own military forces. But in the event of war with North Korea, U.S. military commanders will take control of both U.S. and South Korean forces. U.S. control over South Korean forces in the case of war with North Korea has been the official policy since the U.S. took over operational control during the Korean War.
According to Stars and Stripes, the agreement calls “for the transfer of operational control to be ‘conditions based,’ meaning the move has been postponed indefinitely.” The delay is meant to give South Korea time to develop “the core military capabilities needed for the OPCON transfer to take place by mid-2020.” Both U.S. and South Korean officials agree that the security conditions on the peninsula are too precarious (and South Korea’s capabilities too underdeveloped) for an OPCON transfer to take place. Choi Kang, Director of the Center for Foreign Policy and National Security at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, reiterated these reasons for a domestic audience in a special commentary segment for KBS.
While the reasons given for the delay are quite valid – provocations, missile tests, nuclear weapon developments, and the chance of border skirmishes leading to larger conflict or full-scale war – the OPCON issue has been as much a political issue as a strategic one. While U.S. control of armed forces on the peninsula may make strategic sense, not having full operational control of its own military forces in a time of war has historically been a divisive issue.
A JTBC report on the history of the OPCON issue briefly summarizes the political positions of South Korean presidents. Park Chung-hee, though not as openly confrontational with the U.S. as Syngman Rhee, was in the midst of a national building effort, the primary objective of which was to develop South Korea’s economy and military (a goal reflected in his Heavy and Chemical Industry Drive in the 1970s). In 1968, President Park Chung-hee brought up the issue of OPCON transfer – a move we can interpret as his effort to wrestle a higher degree of national autonomy.
The JTBC report also points to Roh Tae-woo’s 1987 campaign promise to seek OPCON transfer and the relocation of Yongsan military base (where USMFK was and still is located), although Roh is cited as being unsure as to whether the South Korean officer corps was ready to be fully independent. In 1994, Kim Young-sam negotiated the transfer of peacetime control of the military forces. However, it was in 2007 that a cavalier Roh Moo-hyun, who campaigned on an anti-U.S. platform, negotiated the return of operational control, which was to take place by 2012.
It is in Roh Moo-hyun that one sees clearly a different side of the OPCON issue. Quoted in a Stars and Stripes article, the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Auslin argues that the OPCON transfer negotiated by Roh was driven by domestic politics. “It stemmed originally from domestic [South] Korean politics, to get rid of the inequity of not having control over their own troops in times of war.” He goes on, “It wasn’t driven by military planning and analysis… but rather it was based on politics.”
A separate JTBC report identifies Roh Moo-hyun as being the first president to seriously push the issue of South Korea having complete control of its national defense (chajukukbang). During the report, a clip is played from a 2006 speech where Roh tells his audience what he thinks about South Korea not having full operational control of its own armed forces. He says, with much zeal:
What has the South Korean military done to this point? They [South Korean military commanders] have built a military that cannot watch over the country or manage its own operational control — and yet they boast: “I’m the Minister of National Defense” and “I’m the Chief of Staff.” One after another they’ve come out and stated that operational control cannot be transferred. Is this not a dereliction of duty? They should be ashamed of themselves. [my translation]
The conditions under which Roh pushed for, and eventually got, an agreement for OPCON transfer were, it must be pointed out, quite different from the current climate: a serious effort at North-South détente (the Sunshine Policy), a sharp increase in anti-U.S. sentiment following the death of two school girls after they were struck by an American armored vehicle, and, as shown in the quote above, a president dissatisfied with the U.S. military commanding South Korean troops in the event of war with North Korea. The resulting agreement, concluded in 2007, was based on the mutual understanding that the transfer would be an opportunity for South Korea to improve its military capabilities.
Obviously, the OPCON transfer did not go through. In 2010, Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama agreed to a delay, concurring that the security situation was unsuitable given the then-recent hostilities (the North’s sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeongpyong Island) and North Korea’s nuclear weapons posture. Lee Myung-bak also led a rekindling of ROK-U.S. relations, taking a posture towards the U.S. very different from his predecessor. Current President Park Geun-hye, who has maintained strong ties with the U.S., can be seen as continuing the relationship established during Lee’s tenure. And while North Korea hasn’t engaged in any provocative acts on the level of the Cheonan sinking, North-South relations are not improving. The security situation is, indeed, still precarious.
While the Sunshine Policy era is over and the ROK-U.S. alliance is seemingly as strong as it has ever been, it is worth remembering that South Korean leaders have not always been as willing as Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye to extend U.S. operational control over South Korean forces “indefinitely.” Domestic politics have, and most likely will, play a major role at some point in the not-so-distant future. And, although public support for the ROK-U.S. alliance is currently high, that could quickly change (as public opinion is wont to do). Operational capabilities may not be as high as some military planners may like, but the desire for autonomy is a strong force and one that could catapult another Roh-like politician to the Blue House.