The planned transfer of wartime operational control from the United States to South Korea is a testament to the strength of the bilateral alliance, a senior Pentagon official said Tuesday.
Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, made the remark at a forum in Washington as he sought to dispel concerns about a rift in the alliance caused in part by South Korea's decision to end a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan.
The General Security of Military Information Agreement was seen by the US as a platform for trilateral cooperation against North Korea's nuclear threats and China's military rise. And Seoul's decision in August to withdraw in light of a separate dispute with Japan over trade and wartime history provoked Washington's ire.
"It is a long-standing, deep alliance, and we have issues from time to time, but it's a very strong alliance," Schriver said at the Brookings Institution. "When we look at something like OPCON transfer, I mean, the remarkable thing is we are pursuing it and talking about it. We're talking about one of the most dangerous areas in the world, and we're actually involved in a process that will ultimately lead to South Korea being in charge of combined forces that include US forces. That's a pretty significant statement of confidence in the alliance."
The allies have been pursuing the conditions-based transition of operational control, in the event of war, with a target date of 2022 or thereabouts.
Once the transfer is complete, a South Korean general will head the Combined Forces Command, with a US general taking on supportive roles.
The South handed over operational control of its troops to the US-led UN command during the 1950-53 Korean War. It retook peacetime OPCON in 1994, but wartime OPCON remains in the hands of the US.
US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver (Yonhap)
"We think it has to be conditions-based because of the seriousness of the security environment there and the need to ensure that we're as capable and prepared as possible," Schriver said. "So when we look at things like command structure, when we look at things like certain key capabilities for that contingency, we're going to be pretty insistent that South Korea acquires those capabilities before we agree to the transfer and not be tied to any political calendar."
He warned, however, that the frictions between South Korea and Japan will only benefit countries such as China, Russia and North Korea.
"And that's not a good place to be," he said, adding that defense officials in Seoul, Washington and Tokyo continue to have regular interactions.
"We're trying our best to insulate the defense and security relationship from the political tensions that obviously are present," he said. "I think one of the reasons we spoke out on GSOMIA is because that was spilling into the security trilateral work in an unhelpful way, but overall I think we're doing okay."
Schriver added that he believes the prevailing security interests and security environment will ultimately bring the three countries back together, and that the US is open to finding ways to help its two allies resolve their differences.
The assistant secretary also called on China to tighten sanctions enforcement against North Korea ahead of the resumption of working-level denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang this weekend.
"We believe China can do a little better on the sanctions enforcement and cooperating with us in an overall effort to get North Korea to the negotiating table in a constructive way," he said. "We've seen some slippage on sanctions enforcement, and we are willing to work with China to strengthen that enforcement effort." (Yonhap)