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This post is authored by Shin Kyoungsoo, secretary general of the Korea-U.S. Alliance Foundation and former ROK defense attache to the United States. It is part of a project conducted by the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation and Korea Foundation. This series of posts will address the transition of operational control (OPCON) on the Korean Peninsula. To further stimulate an open discussion of these issues, we would like to invite reader responses. Please contact Ellen Swicord at email@example.com for submission guidelines if you are interested in contributing a response.
Brief Overview of Wartime OPCON Transition
The concept, timing, and command structure of wartime operational control (OPCON) transition have undergone many changes from the outset of negotiations between the United States and South Korea since 2007. The majority of the changes stem from instability on the Korean Peninsula and political decisions resulting from increased North Korean threats. Initially, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and United States developed ‘the supported and the supporting relationship’ between ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and U.S. Korea Command (KORCOM) for the future command structure. However, the United States accepted South Korea’s proposal to postpone the scheduled transfer date due to North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile tests and worsening security conditions on the Korean Peninsula. In 2014, South Korea and the United States finally agreed to implement the Conditions-based OPCON Transition Plan (COPT). COPT calls for the transfer of wartime operational command authority to a South Korean four-star general and preservation of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) system. South Korea and the United States have designated the new CFC as the post-OPCON transition headquarters. Despite these changes, the objective – to enhance alliance capabilities to deter external aggression and to increase the South Korean military’s leading role within the combined defense system – remains unchanged.
Prerequisites for Successful OPCON Transition
OPCON transition will be a critical moment for security on the Korean Peninsula and will transform the ROK-U.S. alliance profoundly. In order to overcome opposition from Korean conservatives, the following prerequisites for successful OPCON transition must be secured:
First, the alliance should be strengthened through mutual trust and shared values during and after the OPCON transition. COPT was initially developed to mitigate incidents that could damage trust between South Korea and the United States, such as overturning mutual agreements and the ongoing postponement of the transfer. If mutual trust is compromised in the process of negotiating the OPCON transition, the transfer will weaken not only the alliance but also the combined defense posture.
Second, South Korea and the United States should abide by the three agreed-upon conditions for successful OPCON transition. In the past, OPCON transition was a political decision – not a military recommendation. However, the conditions of COPT will enable U.S.-ROK alliance managers to transfer OPCON authority through military evaluation and decision-making with minimal political interference. Moreover, China and Japan’s role in North Korea’s denuclearization should be taken into account when evaluating the strategic environment on the Korean Peninsula in line with the agreed-upon conditions. And, the projected reduction in South Korean troop numbers to less than 300,000 by the 2040s must be addressed before the transition.
Third, principles of the current CFC system should apply to the new command post-OPCON transition. South Korea and the United States should not return to the “supported and supporting” command relationship, as it lacks efficiency and combinedness. The CFC system is an effective deterrent against the nuclear and conventional North Korean threat. It should be clear that the U.S.-ROK CFC is only one component of the combined defense system, which consists of three pillars: the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), Military Committee Meeting (MCM), and CFC. The new CFC should serve as a bilateral decision-making structure, not a unilateral command by a single nation.
Fourth, the two nations should continue to build alliance capabilities, including South Korea’s critical capabilities and the United States’ enduring and bridging capabilities. The United States should provide a more specific plan detailing what U.S. capabilities will be provided and when, and how these capabilities will be delivered to the new CFC. The United States should provide Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, extended deterrence, and strategic assets as part of U.S. enduring and bridging capabilities.
Finally, South Korea and the United States should manage all alliance issues through closely coordinated strategic communications. The allies should clarify that the Pershing Rule does not apply to OPCON transition in South Korea and that OPCON transition has nothing to do with ROK sovereignty. South Korea and the United States should also inform the public that the new CFC, led by a Korean general, will serve as the main warfighting headquarters, rather than the United Nations Command (UNC) led by a U.S. general.
Recommendations for the New Combined Forces Command
For successful transition, the new South Korean CFC commander should have the same authority and capabilities as the current CFC commander, General Abrams. This includes responsibility for cooperation with and integration of UNC sending states’ military strength and operations, U.S. wartime reinforcement, and UNC rear bases in Japan. A South Korean four-star general will lead the new CFC, but the U.S. military will own a significant portion of ISR, Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I), and missile defense capabilities. Therefore, the ability to communicate effectively with the United States will also be critical for the new CFC commander.
For the South Korean military to continue to develop its capability to lead combined theater operations and integrate combined and joint operations, South Korea and the United States should carry out large-scale theater-level and computer-driven combined exercises with defensive and offensive scenarios. Representatives of government agencies and all U.S. Unified Commands in support of the implementation of the Operations Plan (OPLAN) 5015 should participate in the exercises even after the OPCON transition. Because the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) and the Full Operational Command (FOC) assessments evaluate warfighting procedures, South Korea and the United States should place more emphasis on achieving the Fully Mission Capable (FMC) evaluation. To increase the transparency of the FMC criteria and evaluation, it is necessary for South Korea and the United States to organize and operate an external verification team from outside the two governments capable of providing third-party verification and certification.
South Korea and the United States should also enable the South Korean four-star general to exercise a new Combined Delegated Authority (CODA) for OPLAN development, preparation and execution of combined exercises, and the management of combined crisis. Other areas such as combined intelligence management, combined development of doctrine, and C4I interoperability can be tailored to South Korean capabilities.
Finally, South Korea and the United States should clarify the roles of the U.S. Department of Defense and ROK Ministry of National Defense in support of the unified operation of the new CFC. Annual security consultation mechanisms such as the SCM, MCM, 2+2 Extended Deterrence Strategy & 77 Consultation Group, and ROK-U.S.-Japan Defense Trilateral Talks should be emphasized and strengthened after the OPCON transition.
OPCON transition is a new beginning, not an end, for combined defense. The strength of the ROK-U.S. alliance must be preserved through the pursuit of wartime operational control transition. At the same time, the allies should reinforce the vital military capabilities necessary to lead the combined defense posture. To this end, South Korea and the United States should allow specialists with experience from the two militaries to determine whether the transition conditions are satisfied. South Korea and the United States should continue to work together to strengthen the capabilities of the alliance even after the transition.