South Korean Military war time Operational Control (OPCON) is under the authority of the US-ROK Combined Forces Command, which is always led by a four star US general. South Korea is the only country that does not have wartime OPCON of its own forces. There have been several requests for a transfer of OPCON back to South Korean control, first starting in 2000 under the presidency of Roh Moo Hyun, but this deadline has been consistently postponed due to fears it would weaken the alliance, or that North Korea would escalate its provocations.[i] OPCON is scheduled to transfer to South Korean command on December 2015, but it is unsure if it will actually stay on schedule. South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin stated that he doesn’t believe that the 2015 date is appropriate because he doesn’t think that the Korean armed forces are ready to independently deter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.[ii]
This current situation is increasingly unpopular in the United States and has only mixed support in the South Korean population. Americans view the issue of OPCON as a sign of continued South Korean dependence. Last July, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Senator Carl Levin made this statement about Korea, “It is a sovereign nation, and sovereign nations should be responsible for their own national defense in time of war.”[iii] In the ROK support for the current OPCON situation breaks down along ideological lines, with the political left supporting the transfer and conservative politicians supporting the current status-quo. President Roh was a progressive and saw the issue as a matter of sovereignty, and it fit in with his continuation of the Sunshine policy towards North Korea. The next president, Lee Myung-bak, was more conservative and postponed the transfer.[iv] The main reason for the continual postponement of OPCON transfer is the fear that it will lead to America disengaging from the Korean peninsula leaving South Korea open to North Korean military actions. This is a reasonable concern, especially as America is reducing its overall troop levels to the lowest point since WWII.
The transfer of OPCON should be a deliberate process not undertaken for purely political reasons, but it is unreasonable for it to continue in perpetuity. North Korea’s propaganda benefits from the U.S. Military presence in South Korea, and by portraying South Korea as an American puppet. In South Korea, as America cedes more control to Seoul, it can counteract the anti-American narrative that the United States is only using Korea for its own ends. Also, as Seoul gains more responsibility for its defense there will be a greater motivation to lessen dependence on America and contribute more to the protection of their own country easing the burden on American soldiers and tax payers.
[i] Robert E. Kelly, “Who Should Have Wartime Command?,” The Diplomat, August 12, 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/08/12/south-korea-who-should-have-wartime-command/
[ii] Sam Kim and Tony Capaccio, “U.S.-Korea Agree on Plan to Thwart N. Korea Nuclear Threats,” Bloomberg, October 2, 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-10-02/u-s-korea-agree-on-plan-to-thwart-north-korea-nuclear-threat.html
[iii] Craig Whitlock, “Handover of U.S. command of South Korean troops still under debate,” The Washington Post, September 29, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/handover-of-us-command-of-south-korean-troops-still-under-debate/2013/09/29/25a73374-28fb-11e3-83fa-b82b8431dc92_story.html
[iv] Shelley Su, “The OPCON Transfer Debate,” SAIS US-Korea 2011 Yearbook, 2012, http://uskoreainstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Su_YB2011.pdf