Handover of wartime troop leadership likely to be key topic at Korea defense meetings
SEOUL – The possible delay of the U.S. handover of wartime leadership of troops on the Korean Peninsula is expected to be a major topic during defense meetings this week in Seoul.
High-level officials will meet Tuesday and Wednesday for the fourth South Korean-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue, a series of working-level talks covering a range of topics, from the North Korean nuclear threat to space and cybersecurity, according to a Ministry of National Defense statement.
This week’s talks will help set the agenda for the top-level Security Consultative Meeting in October, when the possible delay in the transfer of wartime operational control to South Korea is widely expected to be on the agenda.
Commonly referred to as OPCON transfer, the change is now set for December 2015. The transfer was originally set for 2012 but was delayed in 2010 over concerns about the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and its deadly sinking of a South Korean warship that March.
Under the current command structure, the U.S. Forces Korea commander, who also heads the United Nations Command and the U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command, would lead U.S. and South Korean troops if war broke out. A South Korean four-star army general serves as deputy commander, and South Korea retains control of its troops during peacetime.
South Korean defense officials recently asked the U.S. to consider delaying the 2015 transfer date, citing concerns about North Korea’s apparently increasing nuclear capabilities following its third nuclear test earlier this year. An MND spokesman said Monday that South Korea has not yet suggested an alternate date for the transfer.
President Barack Obama said in May – apparently before South Korea requested the delay – that the transfer would take place as scheduled.
However, former USFK commander Gen. B.B. Bell, now retired, said earlier this year that the U.S. should offer Seoul the opportunity to “permanently postpone” the transfer because of the threat posed by Pyongyang.
“As long as the North remains nuclear weapons-capable, America should lead our combined military forces,” he wrote in a letter widely published in the South Korean media.