The Asan Institute for Policy Studies hosted the 1st Asan Institute Roundtable on “The Political Economy of US-ROK OPCON Transfer” on April 15, 2010.
Moderator Hahm Chaibong (Director, Asan Institute) and panelists Bruce Bennett (RAND Corporation), Choi Kang (Professor, Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security), Chun Jaesung (Professor, Seoul National University) and Koo Bonhan (Professor, Hallym University) discussed the political and economic implications of the scheduled transfer of the control over wartime command of the joint US-ROK military forces.
Recent tension in the Korean peninsula marked by the Cheonan sinking has brought renewed attention to the US-ROK military alliance and its deterrence capability vis-a-vis DPRK. Central to this alliance from a tactical perspective is the US-ROK operational control (OPCON), which is the control over wartime command of the joint US-ROK military forces. Although the U.S. and ROK, under the then President Roh Moo-hyun, reached an agreement in 2006 to transfer OPCON to ROK by 2012, this agreement remains controversial and has raised security concerns among both the ROK military and the public. In the background to OPCON transfer loom larger issues including the ROK’s capacity for self-reliant national defense and changes in US military strategy towards concepts such as strategic flexibility, hybrid warfare and rebalancing. In the first ASAN Roundtable, convened on April 15, 2010, participants examined the complexity of the issues surrounding OPCON transfer and delivered their policy recommendations.
In the opening presentation, Bruce Bennett of the RAND Corporation touched on recent changes in US overseas military personnel and focused on ROK military modernization and defense spending. Noting the US desire for a stronger ROK military, Bennett voiced concern over recent trends in the ROK military such as a shorter conscription period and called on ROK to more actively address issues of “fairness” in burden sharing between allies. The three Korean experts speaking afterwards – Koo Bon-Hak, Choi Kang and Chun Chaesung – echoed Bennett’s call for a stronger ROK military while also emphasizing the need for a vigorous US-ROK military alliance. Koo elaborated on the reasons why many South Koreans demand a delay of the OPCON transfer, such as a lack of ROK preparedness to counter DPRK WMDs and controversial domestic political considerations behind the transfer. Koo then discussed in detail the economic dimension of the OPCON transfer, in particular the ROK Defense Reform 2020 and defense burden sharing since the signing of the Special Measurement Agreement in 1991.
Agreeing with Koo, Choi touched on the historical background to the ROK’s efforts for a self-reliant national defense and discussed current difficulties, such as the feasibility of the ROK Defense Reform 2020 and honoring the ROK commitment to increased defense spending. Choi also mentioned diversification of the North Korean threat and the need for the ROK to share with the U.S. responsibility for regional and global security. Lastly, Chun elaborated on the problems with the scheduled OPCON transfer as agreed under the Roh administration, especially in light of changes in the current Lee administration’s foreign policy and also taking into account long-term US-ROK cooperation after 2012. Arguing the need for a new master plan for ROK national defense that reflects changes in inter-Korean relations, U.S. military strategy, and regional & global security environment, Chun also pointed out the need for a better informed ROK public as the ROK becomes a maturing democracy and public perception of the U.S. changes.