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OPCON Transfer

Speaking at a Woodrow Wilson Center seminar, Presidential Special Adviser Moon Chung-in said 16 June 2017 that Seoul should now have the wartime operational control of the South Korea-U.S. allied forces. "He made it very clear that he wants to get back the wartime operational control from the US. I think that President Donald Trump would love that idea."

The US took operational control [OPCON] of South Korean forces during the Korean War back in the early 1950s. Peacetime control was returned in 1994, and the South Korean military is set to achieve full autonomy when it takes over wartime operational control. Until 1994 a U.S. four star Commander operationally controlled the ROK military in peacetime, as well as in potential wartime.

Historically, operational control of South Korea's tactical armed forces made the United States commander vulnerable to the politics of association. United States commanders have rigidly avoided commentary on South Korean party politics, confining public statements to purely military matters on such issues as arms buildups and threats from North Korea. However, in the complex politics of the Korean Peninsula, the United States commander's military opinions often have been publicly manipulated as support for Seoul's authoritarianism.

In May 1961 and December 1979, the command structure was breached by South Korean troops participating in military coups. A more complex set of circumstances occurred in May 1980, when troops were withdrawn from the CFC under existing procedures and dispatched to Kwangju to respond to the student uprising. Confusion in the South Korean public over the particular circumstances of the incident, the United States position, and the limits of the CFC's control led many South Koreans to believe that the United States fully supported the violent suppression of the uprising. The lack of an accurate historical record for nearly ten years generated widespread misunderstanding, and it has been credited with the rise of anti-Americanism in South Korea, a movement which continues.

American journalist Tim Shorrock, who briefly lived in Korea as a child, has a lifetime's worth of records collected about the May 18th movement. Shorrock obtained the thousands of declassified USA documents about Gwangju under the Freedom of Information Act in 1996. They were described in detail by the Washington Post when his stories were released. Shorrock is working closely with the 5.18 Archive, which contains articles, journals, photos, and tapes of the period collected by the city. He shared his discoveries from official US documents that had been kept "classified" for decades.

"The U.S. military intelligence had extensive information about the Chun Doo-hwan group.., Despite all this information about what happened, the US decided on May 22 1980 to use military force to end the Gwangju uprising."

The U.S. didn't "command" the use of force, but with South Korea's control of its military dependent on U.S. authority, it speaks volumes about the role of the U.S. in the inhumane treatment of local citizens. The U.S. had received innacurate information from Korea, including many false reports, for example, that students were holding provincial government officials hostage.

"The U.S. officials had known the information they were receiving was distorted and yet the officials still sided with Chun. Why? They believed based on the perhaps on the distorted reports from Korean military and their own analysis from the CIA, that this rebellion could spread nationwide, and maybe bring down the S. Korean government. In this context, there was the Iran crises where students had seized the embassy in Iran, this was a huge crisis for the Carter administration. They did not want to have another national security crisis in Korea. They decided that the Korean military was the only force here that could preserve stability."

Only after President Chun stepped down at the end of 1987, and the opposition in the National Assembly grew stronger, did the United States begin answering the questions concerning United States involvement in Kwangju. On June 19, 1989, Washington issued the "United States Government Statement on Events in Kwangju, Republic of Korea, in May 1980," in response to formal requests from the National Assembly. The statement addressed a series of questions related to the rise to power of then Lieutenant General Chun Doo Hwan. The statement noted no prior knowledge of the assassination of President Park Chung Hee, nor warning of the December 12, 1979, íncident, in which a group of South Korean army officers led by Major General Chun seized control of the military. It was revealed that Washington repeatedly protested to the government and the military leadership about the misuse of forces under the Combined Forces Command. The report also stated that South Korean authorities gave the United States two hours advanced warning of the extension of martial law on May 18, 1980, and no prior warning of the military's intention to arrest political leaders or to close both the National Assembly and the universities.

The statement clearly noted that none of the South Korean forces deployed at Kwangju were, during that time, under either the operational control of the CFC or the control of any United States authorities. Additionally, the United States had neither prior knowledge of the deployment of special forces to Kwangju nor responsibility for their actions there. The report addressed the use of the Twentieth Division, CFC, and clarified that the CFC agreement allowed both the United States and South Korea to assert control over its forces at any time without the consent of the other. According to the statement, the United States was informed in advance of intentions to use elements of the Twentieth Division to reenter Kwangju, that United States officials, after cautioning against the use of military force to solve a political crisis, accepted that it would be preferable to use the Twentieth Division rather than Special Forces units (but the latter were also involved). The report further documented that the United States repeatedly protested public distortions of Washington's actions and policy by Seoul and the South Korean press, namely allegations that the United States knew either of the December 12 incident in advance or of the extension of martial law, or that Washington approved of the Special Forces actions in Kwangju.

While the report rebutted most of the myths of American culpability for events in 1979 and 1980, the ten-year delay in issuing the report did little to resolve the misgivings held by many South Koreans, who still persisted in believing that the United States was in some way a party to the military takeover in May 1980, and the harsh suppression of the Kwangju demonstrations that followed.

On conclusion of negotiations in 1994, peacetime operational control (OPCON) of the Republic of Korea military was transferred from the U.S. led Combined Forces Command, to the Republic of Korea Joint Chiefs of Staff (ROK JCS). Since 1994, the Republic of Korea and the United States have discussed and negotiated the next logical step in Alliance command arrangements, the full transfer of wartime operational control of ROK military forces from the U.S. led Combined Forces Command to a new ROK Joint Forces Command (JFC).

America's long-time partners in the bilateral alliance in the Grand National Party were pushed into the minority by President Roh Moo Hyun and his supporters in the Uri Party. In December 2002, President Roh Moo-hyun was elected to a single 5-year term of office. In the April 2004 elections, the Uri Party won an slim, but outright majority in the National Assembly. Both the president and leading figures in this party seem to have a very different attitude toward the US-Korea Alliance than the politicians we were accustomed to working with in the past; they appear not to share our apprehensions about developments in North Korea; and they appear to be much friendlier toward China than are members of the GNP.

By 2005 Seoul had requested regaining wartime control of its armed forces. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his South Korean counterpart Yoon Kwang-ung discussed the wartime operational command at the 32nd Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) held in Seoul in October 2005. Defense Minister Yoon said "The issue of wartime command transfer will become one of the main issues to be discussed at SCM." The defense chiefs discussed transferring wartime command of the nation's troops back to Seoul during the annual security consultations. Wartime operational control was part of a much broader discussion of command relationships. Seoul regained the right to control its armed forces in peacetime in 1994. Wartime command was originally transferred to the US-led United Nations Command in 1950.

Many conservatives believed that then-President Roh Moo-hyun, who was elected on a wave of anti-American sentiment, "strong-armed" the U.S. into accepting the OPCON transition agreement in 2007. President Roh Moo-hyun, when he negotiated the 2007 OPCON transition agreement with the U.S., framed the issue as one of Korea regaining sovereignty over its armed forces. For many supporters of the agreement, national pride outweighed any questions they may have about the security implications of OPCON transition. Moreover, some supporters of the 2012 transition schedule believe it is in Korea's interest to not be dependent on U.S. forces. Many supporters of the 2012 schedule believe that OPCON transition will create conditions conducive to rapprochement between the South and North by removing an irritation for the North.

Lee Myung-bak, a strongly pro-American president, campaigned on delaying OPCON transition during the 2007 campaign. On the other hand, progressives in South Korea perceive OPCON transition as an issue of national sovereignty. Proponents of delay had several motivations, including security concerns, budget constraints, and political calculations. OPCON transition was widely misinterpreted in Korea to mean a reduction of U.S. support for Korea's defense, and proponents of delay argued that the threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea has only increased since the OPCON transition agreement was signed in 2007. Moreover, 2012 would be an inauspicious year for managing the handover because of presidential and National Assembly elections in Korea, a presidential election in the U.S., and the (likely disappointing) culmination of North Korea's self-proclaimed effort to become a "strong and prosperous nation."

The U.S. and R.O.K. agreed to transfer wartime operational control to the R.O.K. military on December 1, 2015.

Final negotiations to set a date for this transition were agreed to in 2007, with a ROK military OPCON transition from CFC to the ROK JFC date set for 17 April 2012. To achieve realignment of responsibilities in the transition of wartime OPCON in 2012, the ROK and U.S. militaries completed a transition road map - the Strategic Transition Plan (STP) - signed in 2007, identifying requirements and milestones for the next five years. Prior to the ROK assuming wartime operational control of its own forces in 2012, U.S. and ROK planners will develop new terms of reference, crisis action standard operating procedures, wartime command and control procedures, and operational plans through formal alliance consultative processes, such as the bi-monthly Security Policy Initiative and the annual Security Consultative and Military Committee Meetings.

Meeting at the G-20 economic summit in Toronto om 26 June 2010, President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak agreed to delay the current April 17, 2012, date to December 2015. The postponement of the so-called OPCON plan "reflects the current security condition on the Korean peninsula and will strengthen the alliance of the two nations," Lee was quoted by South Korea's Yonhap News Agency in a joint press conference with Obama after the summit.

Advocates of delay were motivated by security concerns and budget constraints. Advocates for delaying OPCON transition were primarily veterans. Because veterans comprised the core of the GNP's base, some GNP leaders were eager to press the issue. Voices advocating delay were loud and influential. There was also some support for delay in the opposition DP, also among veterans.

Proponents of delay have several motivations, including security concerns, budget constraints, and political calculations. OPCON transition was widely misinterpreted in Korea to mean a reduction of U.S. support for Korea's defense, and proponents of delay argue that the threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea has only increased since the OPCON transition agreement was signed in 2007. Many conservatives believed that then-President Roh Moo-hyun, who was elected on a wave of anti-American sentiment, "strong-armed" the US into accepting the OPCON transition agreement.

Proponents of maintaining the 2012 transition schedule were motivated by asserting Korea's sovereignty over its armed forces and creating conditions for improved relations with North Korea. Progressives in South Korea perceived OPCON transition as an issue of national sovereignty. proponents of maintaining the 2012 date were initially silent on the issue, largely because they believed it was settled after the debate that led up to the 2007 U.S.-ROK agreement on the 2012 date.

Moreover, 2012 would be an inauspicious year for managing the handover because of presidential and National Assembly elections in Korea, a presidential election in the U.S., and the (likely disappointing) culmination of North Korea's self-proclaimed effort to become a "strong and prosperous nation."

Talks on transferring the wartime operational control of South Korean forces from Washington to Seoul were underway in early August 2014, by which time it looked like the transfer will be delayed by five years, to 2020. Delegations led by Korea's Deputy Defense Minister Ryu Je-seung and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Helvey met in Washington to discuss the appropriate timing. Sources there said they agree South Korea's military needed more time to bolster its defense and other capabilities to counter threats posed by North Korea.

This meeting was crucial as it could be the last round of talks before the two allies announce their agreement at their annual defense ministerial meeting in Washington in October 2014. But following Pyongyang's third nuclear test in February 2013, Seoul asked Washington to delay the transfer. South Korea's Defense Minister Han Min-koo had also been pointing to the changing circumstances behind Seoul's request, emphasizing that North Korea has been carrying out realistic drills since Kim Jong-un took power in 2012.

The United States agreed October 23, 2014 to an indefinite delay in handing over wartime control of troops on the Korean peninsula to South Korea. The two allies did not set a new timeline, but the transfer is expected to take place some time in the mid-2020s. The decision came at the annual Security Consultative Meeting in Washington between South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo and his U.S. counterpart Chuck Hagel. The handover was initially scheduled for 2012 before being delayed to 2015.

According to a joint statement released after the meeting, the deal was made in light of the evolving security environment in the region, which includes North Korea's nuclear and missile threats, and the need to maintain a strong combined defense posture. Seoul and Washington agreed to a conditions-based approach. The eventual transfer will only come once the security environment in the region allows for a stable transition, when the South Korean military is equipped with core capabilities, and is ready to counter threats from the North. Based upon the recommendations of the defense chiefs, the presidents of South Korea and the US will determine the appropriate timing for the transition. The decision was the result of the view of South Korea’s defense ministry that their forces didn’t have the sophistication and resources to take charge in case of a second Korean War.

At a National Assembly interpellation session on 03 November 2014, Rep. Shon In-chun of the ruling Saenuri Party said the decision of Defense Minister Han Min-koo and his US counterpart Chuck Hagel to delay the transition of wartime OPCON was an inevitable choice as North Korea had shown no sign of giving up its nuclear ambitions. Rep. Shim Jae-kwon of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) argued that the decision amounted to an abandonment of national sovereignty. “The North’s nuclear program and Seoul’s wartime OPCON are two separate matters,” he said. “The decision just showed that Seoul depends too much on foreign countries. The agreement poured cold water on the nation’s efforts to restore its military sovereignty.”

Following the October 2015 meeting between President Obama and President Park, in which the two countries recommitted to a comprehensive and global Alliance, senior defense officials met in November 2015 at the 40th ROK-US Military Committee Meeting (MCM) and the 47th ROK-US Security Consultative Meeting (SCM). They identified critical military capabilities that the Republic of Korean military must develop to meet the conditions of OPCON transition; and endorsed the Conditions-based Operational Control (OPCON) Transition Plan, or COT-P.

Conditions-based OPCON transition (COT-P) defines an effective way forward. COT-P creates a well-designed pathway to implement a stable transfer of wartime OPCON of combined forces from the U.S. to the ROK. This Plan provides a road map for the Republic of Korea to develop the capabilities that will allow it to assume wartime Operational Control (OPCON) when the security environment on the Korean Peninsula and in the region is conducive to a stable transition.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his South Korean counterpart, Han Min Koo, an agreement 02 Novemer 2015 that would transfer wartime operational control of South Korean forces from the United States back to Seoul when it improves its military and intelligence capabilities, including its counter-artillery operations against North Korea. The two sides first agreed to transfer control back as early as 2007, but it was postponed several times after increased tensions on the peninsula, including the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan that was blamed on Pyongyang. The new agreement pushed that timetable to sometime after 2020.

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo called 12 June 2019 for thorough preparations for an upcoming exercise with the United States to prove that South Korea is on course to meet the conditions for the envisioned transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of its troops. South Korea is supposed to regain wartime OPCON from the U.S. when the conditions are met. Though no deadline was set, the two sides had been eyeing 2022 or thereabouts as a target date.

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Page last modified: 14-06-2019 18:02:56 ZULU