Asia Defense | Security | East Asia

6 Myths About OPCON Transfer and the US-South Korea Alliance

South Korea’s debate on OPCON transfer has become muddled.

By Sukjoon Yoon for
6 Myths About OPCON Transfer and the US-South Korea Alliance
Credit: Flickr/ White House

South Korean President Moon Jae-in intends to transfer wartime Operational Control Authority (OPCON) to the Republic of Korea (ROK) from United States Forces Korea (USFK) during his presidency, which ends in May 2022. He wants to establish national military sovereignty and take greater responsibility for safeguarding South Korea’s national security, but these are political aspirations.

Militarily however, there are practical consequences of transferring wartime OPCON to the ROK: The ROK-U.S. combined defense posture must be effectively sustained against the present threat from North Korea, and against future threats from China and Russia. This issue is widely believed to be primarily about ROK sovereignty, but a deeper analysis reveals intractable structural problems with the transfer. The ROK cannot be ready within the proposed time frame, which the examination of six common myths makes clear.

Myth 1: That transfer of wartime OPCON to the ROK effectively restores the ROK’s autonomous military sovereignty.

Unfortunately, Moon has only considered the political implications of the transfer, neglecting the military perspective. In practice, the binational ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) depends upon the strategic coordination of the two National Command Authority structures, for example through the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) between the ROK and U.S. defense ministries, which determines the orders of the CFC commander. The ROK’s military sovereignty does not require nor depend upon the transfer.

Myth 2: That there is a theoretical distinction between peacetime and wartime OPCON.

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Since the armistice of 1953 that ended the Korean War, the Korean Peninsula has remained technically (and legally) at war. For seven decades, the combined defense posture of the ROK and U.S. militaries has successfully contained North Korean forces, preventing the recurrence of major conflict, but this has been achieved without elaborating any specific peacetime OPCON concept. Peacetime OPCON is essentially a descriptive compromise that was adopted in 1994 to characterize the complicated chain of command between the ROK and USFK.

Myth 3: That wartime OPCON transfer to the ROK implies or necessitates a Korean commander of the ROK-U.S. CFC.

Moon argues that the transfer would require the current commander, a U.S. four-star general, normally from the U.S. Army, to be replaced by a four-star general or admiral from the ROK armed forces. But no such change is necessary, nor even appropriate. This commandership is not a matter that should be framed in terms of military sovereignty, nor indeed, as some have suggested, of ethnic humiliation. The overriding consideration must be the effectiveness of the ROK-U.S. CFC command structure, and insisting upon a Korean commander could destabilize the existing well-coordinated binational combined defense posture. The current combined chain of command is already complicated, and to make it more operationally or tactically unwieldy risks compromising the capability of the ROK forces and USFK to effectively coordinate their actions during a time of war on the Korean Peninsula.

U.S. Army General Robert Abrams is currently responsible for four roles and missions: He is Commander of USFK, Commander of ROK-US CFC, Commander of the United Nations Command (UNC), and the senior U.S. general in South Korea representing the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Given the current threats from North Korean conventional and nuclear weapons, and the substantial discrepancies between the ROK Armed Forces and USFK, it is only sensible that USFK, formally as part of the UNC’s chain of command, should continue to be the supported force while ROK Armed Forces act as a supporting force.

Myth 4: That the originally agreed conditions for transferring wartime OPCON can be met.

At the 46th SCM in 2014, the two countries stipulated three conditions: The ROK should acquire key military capabilities to lead their combined defense posture, the ROK should also be capable of effectively countering North Korean ballistic nuclear missiles, and the security environment on and around the Korean Peninsula should be conducive to an OPCON transfer. The ROK also committed to expediting the conditions-based OPCON Transition Plan (COTP), in conjunction with the ongoing ROK’s Defense Reform 2.0. At present, none of these conditions have been satisfied. From a political and diplomatic perspective they could be fudged, but the conditions are pragmatic military requirements which will require significant time and effort and resources to realize. Despite the reality-TV summits of U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korean denuclearization is no nearer, and North Korea continues to provoke by testing short-range ballistic missiles.

Myth 5: That Wartime OPCON applies to a nuclear, as well as to an all-out conventional war.

In a conventional war on the Korean Peninsula the ROK armed forces would be on the front line, but a nuclear attack by North Korea would start a regional war. This would entail support from UNC bases in Japan, and also Chinese intervention under their 1961 treaty with North Korea. In these circumstances, wartime OPCON on the Korean Peninsula would involve multinational functions to coordinate UNC forces, which the U.S. would certainly continue to control.

Myth 6: That the recently announced three-phase preparation for wartime OPCON transfer is an effective military process.

At a defense ministers’ summit held August 3, 2019, in Seoul, both countries agreed to first establish Initial Operational Capability (IOC), to certify that the ROK armed forces, led by four-star Army General Choi Byung-hyuk, are capable of exercising wartime OPCON authority, and this was tested during the second half of a bilateral combined defense exercise. Then in 2020 the two militaries will test Full Operational Capability (FOC) in which an ROK commander will take responsibility for the combined defense posture. And the final phase is intended to achieve Full Mission Capability (FMC), after which the decision will be made about the transfer of wartime OPCON to ROK. The IOC process has now officially been verified during Command Post Exercises (CPX), but there is a heated debate among active and retired ROK and U.S. military officers about whether these procedures are adequate, with some arguing that these exercises bear scant resemblance to the exigencies of wartime command. This three-phase process has clearly been determined primarily by political, rather than by military, imperatives.

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Conclusions

The transfer of wartime OPCON in the near future, together with changing the commandership of ROK-U.S. CFC from the U.S. to the ROK, would seriously disrupt the existing binational chain of command and control structures. Some believe that it is time for the ROK armed forces to take greater responsibility for managing the current military standoff and nuclear issues on the Korean Peninsula. But while it is certainly true that the ROK now possesses the world’s sixth largest well-equipped military force, which is a very different outfit from the one which fought in the Korean War of 1950-53, the ROK is still confronting a truly dire security situation. Despite recent summits between the US and North Korea, absolutely no progress has been made on North Korean denuclearization, and there is no consensus on how to bring a formal end to the Korean War.

This article has listed six myths about the transfer of wartime OPCON, and ignoring this analysis which will dramatically impact the US-ROK alliance and the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, because this issue has been framed in terms of the ROK’s national sovereignty, whereas the actual requirements of military command on the Korean Peninsula are being neglected, the transfer of wartime OPCON from the U.S. to the ROK is being expedited for political purposes. President Moon claims to be restoring ROK military and national sovereignty, after decades of playing a subservient role to USFK, but the changes which he seeks to make risk undermining the current combined defense posture and creating a dangerous power vacuum.

Sukjoon Yoon (Captain, ROK Navy, retired) is currently a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs.