(This article is cross-posted by permission of the United States Naval Institute Blog and appeared in its original form on July 25th here.)
According to the Yŏnhap News Agency last Thursday, ROK Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin “confirmed…that he had requested the U.S. government” to postpone the OPCON (Operational Command) transfer slated for December, 2015. Citing from the same source, the National Journal elaborated further by saying Minister Kim believed that the United States was open to postponing the transfer because “a top U.S. government official leaked to journalists” Minister Kim’s request for the delay.
There may be several reasons for the ROK government’s desire to postpone the OPCON transfer. First, the critics of the OPCON transfer both in Washington and the ROK argue that this transition is “dangerously myopic” as it ignores “the asymmetric challenges that [North Korea] presents.” Second, given the shrinking budget, they argue that the ROK may not have enough time to improve its own C4I (Command, Control, Communications, Computer and Intelligence) capabilities, notwithstanding a vigorous procurement and acquisition of state-of-the-art weaponry and indigenous research and development programs for its local defense industries. Third, South Korea’s uneven defense spending, and operational and institutional handicaps within the conservative ROK officer corps have prevented South Korea from developing a coherent strategy and the necessary wherewithal to operate on its own. To the critics of the OPCON handover, all these may point to the fact that, over the years, the ROK’s “political will to allocate the required resources has been constrained by economic pressures and the imperative to sustain South Korea’s socio-economic stability and growth.” As if to underscore this point, the ROK’s defense budget grew fourfold “at a rate higher than conventional explanations would expect” due to fears that the United States may eventually withdraw from the Korean peninsula. It was perhaps for these reasons that retired GEN B. B. Bell, a former Commander of the United States Forces Korea, has advocated postponing the transfer “permanently.“
However, the Obama Administration’s reversal of its decision to hand over the OPCON to the ROK military appears unlikely. First, in the face of the drastic sequestration cuts in the upcoming fiscal years, long-term commitment in the Korean peninsula may be unsustainable. Second, since both the United States Armed Forces and civilians suffer from war-weariness after having fought in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade, it is unlikely that they will accept long-term overseas commitment of this magnitude. Which leads to the third point that the United States will likely favor diplomatic solutions when dealing with Kim Jŏng-ŭn, since the DPRK has recently expressed its desires to engage in dialogues. Fourth, “[m]ost economic and military indicators show that South Korea has an edge over North Korea in almost all measures of power.” While many opponents of the transition point to the DPRK’s asymmetric threats to make their case, Suh Jae-jung contends that “quantitative advantage quickly fades when one takes account of the qualitative disadvantages of operating its 1950s-vintage weapons systems” which has led “serious analysts [to] conclude that ‘North Korea never had a lead over South Korea.’” Most importantly, arguments against the scheduled transition are weak because they tend to focus only on the military dimensions of the ongoing conflict.
There are several ways in which the US-ROK alliance can enhance security dynamics on the peninsula in the aftermath of the OPCON transfer. One obvious approach would be to seek diplomatic solutions to proactively deter further provocations by Kim Jŏng-ŭn. Despite the deep-seated rancor and distrust between the two Korean states, both Korean states have nevertheless agreed to reopen the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex. The latest inter-Korean talk held at P’anmunjŏm demonstrates more than anything else the need to “cajole and flatter the young ruler…[by] allowing Kim Jŏng-ŭn to save face as sovereign ruler of his country.” As Miha Hribernik and I wrote in June, one way of doing this would be to “accept his offers to discuss arms reduction first.” In addition, the US-ROK alliance could defuse tension on the Korean peninsula by recognizing the DPRK as a sovereign state. Such measures would prevent miscommunication where parties involved are “not talking to each other but rather, past each other.”
Nevertheless, the US-ROK alliance must avoid appearing weak even as it seeks diplomatic solutions to guarantee peace and security for the Korean peninsula. As I wrote earlier, “in order for diplomatic endeavors to be sustainable in the long-run, they must be backed up by a credible threat of coercion.” With or without the OPCON, there are several ways in which the US-ROK alliance can effectively deter future DPRK aggressions. One such option, as I’ve written earlier, would be for the United States Pacific Fleet and the ROKN, along with the JMSDF, to form a combined fleet whereby the three navies “would may share their unique resources and cultures to develop flexible responses against future threats by Kim Jŏng-ŭn.” Second would be to allow the ROK JCS Chairman to assume command of the CFC with the top American general serving as his deputy as was proposed in June during a ministerial meeting held between Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin. However, at this juncture, according to the Washington Post, “the 28,500 U.S. troops here will not fall under the command of the South…[since] the United States and South Korea will have separate commands.” Third, to proactively deal with possible DPRK missile attacks, the US-ROK alliance, together with Japan, can develop a collective missile defense system. Fourth, as retired Admiral James Stavridis argues, since the world has converged into smaller communities through globalization, we must take the fight to our adversary by “follow[ing] the money [to upend] threat financing” abroad and at home. Last but not least, since the DPRK’s recent asymmetric attacks against the US-ROK alliance have been waged on cyberspace to cripple their infrastructures, the US-ROK alliance, in tandem with the international community, can work together to enhance their cyber security.
Despite unfounded fears among retired officers and conservative analysts that the OPCON transfer may considerably weaken South Korea’s security, it does not mean that the United States will completely withdraw from the Korean peninsula. Nor does the ROK resemble South Vietnam after the Paris Treaty of 1973. That is, the ROK remains an economically and politically stable nation. With new transition come new opportunities for innovative growth. For the ROK, OPCON transfer just may present such opportunities to protect itself from further aggression by Kim Jŏng-ŭn.
Jeong Lee is a freelance international security blogger living in Pusan, South Korea and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings have appeared on various online publications, including East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and the USNI Blog.