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[Editorial] OPCON transfer

Seoul needs more caution in evaluating the fulfillment of required conditions

North Korea’s display of upgraded strategic and conventional weapons last week has raised the need to reconsider the hasty manner in which South Korea is pushing to retake the wartime operational control (OPCON) of its forces from the US.

The North showed off a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile and submarine-launched ballistic missile during Saturday’s military parade held in Pyongyang to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Workers’ Party. Also showcased at the predawn parade were its version of Russia’s Iskander short-range ballistic missile and super-large multiple rocket launchers.

The display of such variety of weapons appeared aimed at demonstrating its enhanced capabilities of striking the continental US as well as the South.

South Korea should now review its defense posture against the North’s heightened ability to launch military attacks. Experts here say its current missile defense system would be unable to effectively intercept short-range ballistic missiles and rockets simultaneously fired by the North.

Under this circumstance, there seems to be little need for South Korea to be overly enthusiastic about the OPCON transfer.

Seoul and Washington have agreed that the envisioned transfer is not time-based but conditions-based. Still, President Moon Jae-in’s government appears bent on completing the transition before Moon’s five-year presidency ends in May 2022.

In step with the politically-conceived timeline, Defense Minister Suh Wook and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Won In-choul said during their parliamentary confirmation hearings last month that they would strive to accelerate the wartime OPCON transfer to Seoul. Suh said the transition “is in the need of the times” and Won called it a “long-held yearning” of the South Korean people.

In a parliamentary audit two days before the North’s military parade, Won said conditions for the transfer of wartime operational control needed to be revised if the process “is delayed too long.”

As agreed earlier by Seoul and Washington, the necessary conditions for the transfer include South Korea having the capabilities to lead the allies’ combined defense mechanism and respond promptly to the North’s nuclear and missile threats. There must also be a stable security environment on the peninsula and in the region.

In technical terms, South Korea and the US remain behind schedule to carry out a series of tests required for the wartime OPCON transfer.

The allies, which conducted an initial operational capability test last year, planned to move on to a full operational capability test this year but failed to do so, as they were compelled to scale down the summertime joint exercise due to the coronavirus pandemic. The FOC test should be followed by a full mission capability test.

Won said Seoul’s aim was to have the FOC test done by the first half of next year, noting that if the allies complete the test and decide on the target year, the wartime OPCON transfer would effectively become time-based.

It might carry potentially severe risks to South Korea’s security and the allies’ joint defense posture if the key tests are conducted in a convenient way to get the transfer done before Moon leaves office.

Some of Moon’s aides and ruling party lawmakers have complained that making the transition conditions-based could serve as an excuse to indefinitely postpone it.

But what was shown at last week’s military parade in Pyongyang and increasing military assertiveness by China and Russia in the region only show the importance of adhering to the conditions-based transition.

At the start of the allies’ annual defense chiefs’ talks Wednesday, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Washington is committed to the envisioned transfer of the wartime OPCON to Seoul, adding that it would take time to fully meet the required conditions.

A joint communique issued after the meeting between Esper and his South Korean counterpart Suh in Washington noted that “great progress” has been made toward meeting the conditions. But their failure to hold a joint news conference scheduled to be held after the talks -- the US canceled it at the last minute -- raised speculation that there still remain significant differences between the two sides on the OPCON transfer and other pending issues.

As Esper hoped during his opening remarks at the meeting, the process of transferring the wartime OPCON should strengthen the alliance. For this, Seoul needs to be more cautious in evaluating the fulfillment of required conditions and the security environment, avoiding being driven by a politically-conceived timeline.