A little noticed but quite significant outcome of the 29-30 June 2017 summit in Washington between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump was recently mentioned in an article by a South Korean newspaper. During the summit, Trump agreed to an early OPCON transfer whereby operational control of U.S. military forces in South Korea is transferred to Seoul during wartime.
The timing of the transfer has long been the subject of much discussion as well as numerous postponements, and had been scheduled for some time after 2020. The delays have usually been at the request of Seoul, so as to give South Korea more time to prepare for the increased duties and responsibilities that such a transfer will involve. That shows good thinking – so far.
While a specific date for an earlier transfer was not mentioned, there are at least two aspects of the transfer that are problematic, regardless of when the transfer occurs.
To begin, one must recognize that a peacetime operational environment is very different from a wartime one. Admittedly, Seoul has had operational control during peacetime since 1994 without any major problems coming to the fore. However, certain issues, which might surface during an ongoing hot war or an evolving conflict situation, may have been allowed to lay dormant during discussions.
These issues are: the management of American intelligence resources and their products, and the deployment and use of U.S. nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.
It is difficult to imagine the various American military intelligence resources in Korea cheerfully allowing their work to come under the operational control of a foreign commander.
Worse, imagine U.S. intelligence being subjected to approval by an entity so politically attuned – to put it delicately – as the South’s National Intelligence Service, should it decide that it would be the distributor of such information.
One must recognize that a peacetime operational environment is much different than a wartime one
The alternative would be to keep such American assets apart from any OPCON transfer agreement, for that would be one way to ensure U.S. intelligence integrity and political neutrality. But then how would dissemination of U.S. tactical or strategic wartime intelligence be handled under the terms of an OPCON transfer?
It is not unrealistic to expect conflicts of interest arising at the highest national levels as South Korean partisan aims and inconvenient U.S. intelligence information clash. Just look at the problem the U.S. experienced internally with regard to intelligence concerning Iraq’s (lack of) weapons of mass destruction versus a sitting President’s political agenda.
THE NUCLEAR ISSUE
Strategic assets such as American nuclear-equipped bombers present an equally thorny issue. It is unthinkable that U.S. nuclear weapons and their delivery systems focused on the peninsula would be placed under the operational control of any foreign government, even that of a close ally such as South Korea. It would be irresponsible at best and it could be catastrophic at worst.
However, suppose that such weapons and their delivery systems remain stationed outside the Korean Peninsula and thus were not covered by the South Korean – U.S. OPCON agreement. Wouldn’t that be considered to be side-stepping the very intent and purpose of the OPCON transfer?
It is not unrealistic to expect conflicts of interest arising
And that is still not the entirety of the issue, for there has been talk of reintroducing tactical nukes into South Korea as a stronger deterrent against Pyongyang. Does Washington want a foreign government having operational control of those in-country assets, since it would be the U.S. that would bear all responsibility if they were ever used?
American intelligence assets and its nuclear weapons are just two critical issues that – in and of themselves – might argue against an OPCON transfer at any time, and particularly so during a hot war or period of open conflict. Yet, Seoul is correct in demanding its rightful autonomy to conduct its own affairs, including operational control of military forces for self-defense.
It should be noted that, contrary to conventional wisdom, there are times in the past when U.S. forces have indeed been placed under the operational control of military commanders from other countries. Furthermore, that continues to be the case today in some cooperative defense pacts. Examples are more numerous than one might expect, with NORAD and NATO being only two.
To be sure, there were – and are – guidelines and restrictions specifying how American military assets are to be managed by non-U.S. commanders. To get an idea of what is meant by this, Status of Forces Agreements could serve as a peacetime illustration, albeit a non-operational one, of the limits placed on foreign governments with regard to the treatment of U.S. military personnel.
However, comparisons are often made between the current situation on the Korean Peninsula and others such as (1) East and West Germany with regard to unification years ago, or (2) NATO versus first the Soviet Union and now Russia for mutual defense and deterrence. However, that is a false equivalency.
Korea is unique – the North and South Korea of today are not at all like East and West Germany of yesteryear, and Kim Jong Un is not at all like Stalin or any of his successors. What has been applicable in other times and places may not work in the here and now.
The question to be asked is whether an OPCON transfer agreement has been worked out that (a) maintains the impartiality and integrity of U.S. intelligence efforts, and (b) keeps American control over U.S. weapons of mass destruction, all while (c) meeting the sovereign needs of a maturing South Korea. The answer has not yet been made clear.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: UN tanks crossing Han River by Cassowary Colorizations on 2017-05-23 02:29:49