US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former South Korean defense minister Song Young-moo greet troops at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea in this recent file shot. Photo: US Dept of Defense via AFP

South Korea and the United States signed an agreement in Washington DC on Wednesday that appears to stabilize and ensure continued defense cooperation at a time when a range of issues are bearing down on their security alliance.

However, the timing of an issue central to the alliance – the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean and peninsula-based US troops to South Korean command, known as “OPCON transfer” – remains vague.

The agreement was signed in the US one day ahead of a no-fly zone being implemented above the Demilitarized Zone, the flashpoint frontier between the two Koreas. The decision on the latter protocol was made at the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang last month, but it is not clear how much input the US – South Korea’s sole military ally – had.

South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and US Defense Minister James Mattis signed the “Alliance Guiding Principles,” document during their annual, high-level bilateral dialog in Washington yesterday. It lays out a set of commitments that looks five decades ahead.

Jeong said that under the principles “the foundation for OPCON transfer has been laid.”  In connection with this, the two allies agreed to retain the current, joint South Korea-US Combined Forces Command (CFC), but will place it under the leadership of a Korean general, and will also retain the UN Command in South Korea, Yonhap news agency reported from Washington DC.

Seoul and Washington also finalized a decision that had been floated earlier to suspend their December “Vigilant Ace” air exercises in order to provide space for ongoing diplomacy with North Korea to proceed unhampered. The suspension of joint military exercises was the main concession that the US promised to North Korea at the first-ever North Korea-US summit in Singapore in June.

The signing comes at a time when the allies are negotiating the delicate issue of OPCON transfer, and as a range of tension-reducing military arrangements agreed between the two Koreas take effect. Both these issues have drawn the ire of conservatives, who fear for the future of the alliance and resultant vulnerability for South Korea.

The Seoul-Washington alliance essentially has two components: A paper format, the mutual-defense treaty, and an actual deterrent component – troops on the peninsula which operate under joint command. Wednesday’s agreement deals with the latter.

Re-affirming long-held plans

“In signing this document, we ensured the continuity for the ROK-led future CFC as it assumes the mission of our current US-led CFC,” Mattis said. “The future command will continue to use the combined might of the US-ROK alliance to defend ROK sovereignty from any external aggression,” he added.

“ROK,” the short form for “Republic of Korea,” is the official name of South Korea.

The agreement takes into account the next 50 years of the alliance, according to a press release from the South Korean Defense Ministry. It is “expected to address [South Korean] citizens’ security concerns by presenting a direction for the South Korea-US combined defense system after the OPCON transfer”, the release added.

It appears to be a good deal for South Korea.

Under it, the US will appoint a general or an admiral to serve as the deputy commander of the post-OPCON transfer CFC. The documents also calls for Washington’s “continued provision of extended deterrence to South Korea.” “Extended deterrence” refers the full range of off-peninsula US military capabilities, including nuclear, conventional and missile defense assets.

At the meeting, Mattis reiterated the American will to maintain US Forces Korea at its current force level, which is approximately 28,500, although various units rotate into and out of the peninsula.

South Korea handed operational control of its troops to the commander of the US-led UN Command, the multinational force that came to the assistance of the embattled nation during the 1950-53 Korean War. OPCON was then shifted to the chief of the CFC when the latter command was activated in 1978.

The CFC and UN Command chiefs have, since then, been the “triple-hatted” US four-star general who commands all US troops in Korea. Currently, the strength of US Forces Korea stands at approximately 28,500; the South Korean armed forces are approximately 618,000 strong.

The CFC is the command structure that oversees combined South Korea-US operations.

The UN Command coordinates with the 16 “sending states” that include Australia, Canada, France, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States, that defended Korea during the war, but whose defense commitments to modern South Korea are vague. Moreover, despite its title, the UN Command is largely a US, rather than a UN, body.

USFK is the overall command for US troops in Korea – essentially a “skeleton” force that would be tasked with the evacuation of US civilians, and with the reception of huge numbers of GIs on the peninsula if hostilities broke out.

Vague timing is no clearer

South Korea retook peacetime OPCON in 1994. The issue of the transfer of wartime OPCON was originally raised during the liberal 2002-2008 administration of Roh Moo-hyun – mentor of the current president, Moon Jae-in – and was scheduled for 2015. However, during the decade of conservative rule between 2008 and 2017, developments lagged amid Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, and also due to lukewarm support for the plan among the right wing.

The new agreement calls for it only to take place once it has been fully verified that South Korea has all necessary assets in place to take the leadership role. This, experts believe, indicates that Seoul will be required to purchase a wide range of sophisticated and expensive command and control, communications and reconnaissance systems.

The verification process will take place next year, according to the guideline.

But if the end result is clear, the timing is not. Even following Wednesday’s agreement, there was no guidance on when the wartime OPCON transfer will actually happen. In Washington, Jeong only said that “the specific timeframe of the handover will be decided by South Korea and the US.”

The conditions that will have to be met look challenging for South Korea. In 2014, South Korea and the US laid out three conditions for OPCON transfer. First, South Korea had to acquire key military capabilities to lead the two countries’ combined defense; second, it had to secure the essential capabilities to make an early response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat; and third, the security environment on the in the region had to be conducive to an OPCON transfer.

Questions for the alliance

Some conservatives in South Korea consider “OPCON transfer” a delicate issue that could presage a future drawdown or pullout of US troops.

And even given agreement on the command structure, it remains far from clear how the transfer would work in terms of detail and practice, given the customary reluctance of the United States, the world’s sole hyperpower, to place its troops’ under the command of another nation’s officers. A US officer with knowledge of the issue, speaking on condition of anonymity as he did not have permission to communicate with media, told Asia Times earlier this year that there are no benchmarks in place for the process.

Wednesday’s signing in Washington came just before implementation in Korea on Thursday of a no-fly zone across the DMZ – the four-km wide frontier strip that that divides the two Koreans – and over the waters to the east and west of it.

The no-fly zone was one of a number of military tension-reduction agreements Seoul agreed to with Pyongyang during the last inter-Korean summit in September. Asked whether Seoul and Washington were on the same page regarding these agreements, Mattis answered tersely, “Yes.”

Even so, some controversy still hovers over how closely Washington was consulted prior to these agreements being reached. Moreover, conservatives and some ex-military figures in South Korea have complained that the agreements signed between the two Koreas leave the South vulnerable to an attack by the North. According to retired general Shin Won-shik, two stand out.

One: The demilitarization of the west coast in the area of the DMZ leaves Seoul, and its port and airport at Incheon, in an indefensible state, while Pyongyang, which lies inland, far north of the frontier, is not affected. Two: the no-fly zone over the DMZ, which takes effect from today, obviates the allies’ key advantages of airpower and air reconnaissance.

However, moves this week that won much global media coverage – the de-mining, withdrawal of guard posts and the removal of weapons from the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom – were largely symbolic.

The iconic village in the very center of the DMZ is virtually indefensible, and the only weapons officially permitted there, prior to this week’s agreement, were pistols. But the fact that North Korean troops last year appeared with automatic rifles and light machines guns, with which they opened fire on a defector who had rushed across the border which runs through the village, suggests that stocks of those weapons are close at hand.

Asia Times understands that South Korean and US troops also have similar weapons ready for use nearby should the need arise.

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