Anti-war activists hold placards near the US embassy in Seoul during a rally against planned South Korea-US annual joint military exercises on August 5. Seoul and Washington are defying warnings from Pyongyang that the war games will jeopardize nuclear negotiations between the US and North Korea. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

In defiance of recent North Korean warnings and missile tests, South Korea and the United States are expected to start a two-week series of summer military exercises imminently.

The exercises look set to take place amid a virtual media blackout, indicating that the two sides want to keep events as low-profile as possible in order not to undermine diplomacy with North Korea – which customarily reacts angrily toward drills it considers preparations for invasion, and which has in recent weeks carried out a series of missile test firings.

South Korean media, quoting unnamed sources, report that this year’s drills will offer the US side a window to assess South Korean command-and-control capabilities as the two allies gear up for OPCON transfer – the long-delayed transition of wartime operational control of South Korean troops in wartime from the hands of Washington, the leading partner in the bilateral alliance, to those of Seoul.

Downplaying drills

Pyongyang has carried out several missile test-launches over the last two weeks of at least two types of short-range ballistic missiles, as well as a multiple launch rocket system – a tactical artillery weapon.

US President Donald Trump has downplayed the test-firings, which appear to be a signal to Seoul rather than Washington. North Korean state media said the tests were “a solemn warning to the south Korean military warmongers” for hosting drills and procuring defense equipment.

Although it was not written into their official summit declaration, US President Donald Trump assured North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their first-ever summit in Singapore last year that he was indefinitely suspending annual spring exercises at Kim’s request. Trump, at the time, cited costs as one reason for his decision.

The biggest series of combined exercises in recent years takes place in the spring. In March, new “Dong Maeng” exercises were undertaken as downscaled, lower-profile versions of the customary “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” drills

Last year, then-US Forces Korea (USFK) Commander Vincent Brooks told foreign reporters that the aim of downplaying drills was to “create traction diplomatically.” In the past, reporters had been invited to observe marine landings and artillery and helicopter firing drills.

Neither USFK nor the South Korean government has issued media statements on this summer’s drills. No information has been released on the number of personnel, the number or type of US assets that will be deployed or even the names of the drills.

However, according to local media reports, the drills will largely comprise computerized command-post exercises, and are expected to last two weeks.

Intriguingly, South Korean media suggest that one aim of the exercises is to offer US observers a close-up look at South Korean generalship and related processes.

“Preparations are under way for a combined exercise this year to verify our basic operational capabilities for the transfer of wartime operational control,” South Korean Defense Ministry Spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo said, according to Yonhap news agency.


Currently, the US holds wartime command of the two nations’ bilateral alliance: The general commanding both USFK and the Combined Forces Command is American; a Korean serves as his deputy. In 2005, however, under the leadership of then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, Seoul asked for a takeover of wartime operational control of South Korean troops – “OPCON transfer.”

In 2006, Seoul and Washington agreed to move toward that goal, setting in motion a troubled, opaque and much-delayed process. While many Koreans see their own president’s assumption of control as a natural sovereign right, OPCON transfer raises vexing questions over the shape and status of the bilateral alliance.

In 2006, OPCON transfer was set for 2012. The year came and went, and even now there is still no timetable in place. Last year, Brooks said, bluntly, “The time was not right to make a change yet.”

In March this year, a new organization, the Special Permanent Military Committee (SPMC), was established, co-chaired by the USFK commander and the chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, to drive the process forward.

What’s control?

The biggest question – given that any allied force needs a unified command to operate effectively – is  “Who is in charge?” It still has not been addressed.

In the event of an attack by North Korean, the 618,000 strong South Korean military, backed by the 28,000-strong USFK, would defend. However, in terms of reinforcement and counter attack, the US has by far the more powerful military, which makes it the senior partner in the alliance.

Washington deploys a much larger maneuver force, comprising naval, naval airpower and marine landing units, than South Korea possesses; this force would be particularly applicable against North Korea, which has extensive coastlines. Washington also has a range of critical high-technology assets, in areas ranging from command and control to IRS ( Intelligence, Reconnaissance, Surveillance) that South Korea does not possess, and does not have the manpower to operate.

A further complication is political. While US units fought, briefly, under British command in the early days of the invasion of Iraq, and had previously served under British command during World War II’s Northwest European campaign, Washington is traditionally loath to place its troops under foreign control.

“If there are American military personal involved and conducting operations under a [South Korean] commander, people are going to have questions, skepticism or resistance,” Daniel Pinkston a Seoul-based international relations expert at Troy University with military experience, told Asia Times.

“People in the US are going to say, ‘I did not sign to take orders from a Korean general,’ especially if things go badly,” Pinkston said. “And you could flip that the other way, and say that is why South Koreans want it.”

This presents multilple problems – military, technological and political – and few benchmarks for the South Korean and US officers and officials who are building the architecture of the OPCON transfer. As far as is publicly known, there is still no clear model of what the transition and its related structure will look like.

Given political barriers, Pinkston suggested a “declarative” solution in which a South Korean president would take potential OPCON on paper, but a clause would permit him to pass unified command up to the more powerful US forces should the contingency of war actually arise.

“As far as dealing with the symbology and nationalism, that can be done with a ‘declarative policy,’” Pinkston said. “An incoming South Korean president can say, ‘I am in charge of the armed forces of Korea, I have OPCON, but if I transfer it under some kind of contingency – that is it! End of story.’”

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