Almost a decade ago, OPCON was heralded as a symbol of South Korea’s rise from a poor, war-torn nation into an economic power capable of defending itself.
But a string of North Korean provocations — deadly attacks along the disputed maritime border, rocket launches, increasingly powerful nuclear tests — has Seoul wondering whether it’s ready to lead 600,000-plus U.S. and South Korean troops if war were to break out.
South Korea maintains control of its own forces during peacetime. That responsibility, known as OPCON, or operational control, would transfer during open conflict to the top U.S. military official on the peninsula, where some 28,500 American troops are stationed as a deterrent to a North invasion.
Although wartime OPCON is scheduled to transfer to Seoul in December 2015, the two allies now are expected to delay the handover for a third time — a prospect that has some current and former South Korean defense officials breathing a sigh of relief.
“If the North Korean threats disappear now, it would be possible to take over wartime OPCON next year,” said Park Songkuk, a retired lieutenant general and former superintendent of South Korea’s Air Force Academy. “Until North Korea’s ability to threaten us with its nuclear program is gone, I don’t think it’s time for us to get OPCON.”
Some think the switch will leave South Korea more vulnerable to attacks by the North, but others feel Seoul is ready for the responsibility.
“I think the South Koreans have a lack of confidence in their own capabilities, and they shouldn’t,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu. “They’re very good at what they do.”
South Korea requested the delay last year following North Korea’s third nuclear test and a particularly tense period of heightened threats from Pyongyang.
The transfer originally was planned for 2007 but was delayed to 2012. It was then pushed forward to 2015 amid questions about the South’s readiness for the job following the North’s attacks on South Korea’s Cheonan warship and an artillery attack on the civilian-populated Yeonpyeong border island in 2010.
Analysts say that with Washington and Seoul comfortable with the current arrangement, it’s a near-given that another delay is coming. South Korean media have speculated the transfer might be pushed back to 2020 or later. A spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense would not give a target date but said South Korea will “be faithful” in readying itself.
The U.S. has said little about the timing of a possible delay, though Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said last month that Washington is “working very closely with (South Korea) in terms of changing operational control of forces over time and also linking our capabilities closer together.”