South Korea’s Many Considerations Regarding Wartime Operational Control

In July 2022, the two militaries of South Korea and the United States conducted the first joint air exercise to dispatch their respective F-35A stealth fighters in Gunsan City, North Jeolla Province, South Korea.

  On July 22, 2022, the South Korean Ministry of Defense stated that the issue of Wartime Operational Control (also known as Wartime Operational Command) between South Korea and the United States will focus on solving the problem of handover conditions in the future, which has changed. The previous government’s policy of withdrawing this authority as early as possible. On May 7 this year, President-elect Yin Xiyue said in an interview with “Voice of America”, “In order to realize the transformation of wartime operational control as soon as possible, South Korea should make more preparations. Moreover, the issue of the ownership of operational control is not an issue. It cannot be decided by the name or ideas, but rather what is the most effective way to win the war”, thus criticizing the policy of the Moon Jae-in government to take back the control of wartime operations.
Begins with “United Nations Command”

  The South Korea-US military alliance is supported by various cooperation mechanisms such as the military combat command and control system, joint military exercise system, weapon equipment system, and military intelligence sharing system between the two countries. is the core. Wartime operational command is the authority of the commander of the Korea-U.S. Joint Command to command the designated troops through the Korea-U.S. Security Council (SCM) and the Korea-U.S. Military Commission Meeting (MCM), following instructions from the presidents of the two countries.
  Wartime operational control refers to the authority to comprehensively command and control the military during wartime. The Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950. On July 7, the UN Security Council passed the so-called “Resolution on the Establishment of the United Nations Command”. The next day, U.S. President Truman appointed MacArthur, commander of the U.S. Far Eastern Army, as “United Nations Commander.” On July 14, South Korean President Syngman Rhee sent a letter to MacArthur, expressing his willingness to hand over the Operational Command of the South Korean Army, Navy and Air Force to the “United Nations Commander” under the current state of war. MacArthur replied five days later accepting South Korea’s request. This is the beginning of the “handing over” of the command of the Korean military to the United States.
  The Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed in July 1953. In October, the U.S. and South Korea signed the Mutual Defense Treaty, and the U.S.-South Korea alliance was formally established. In November 1954, the two countries signed the “Memorandum of Agreement on Military and Economic Assistance to South Korea”, which stipulated that while the “United Nations Army” was stationed in South Korea, the “United Nations Command” had the operational control of the South Korean military forces (Operational Control). .
  In May 1961, Park Chung-hee launched a military coup and came to power. On May 26, South Korea and the “United Nations Command” signed a joint statement on the ownership of operational control, stating that South Korea would continue to hand over this authority to the “United Nations Commander”, and that the “United Nations Commander” was only exposed to the so-called “communist threat” in South Korea. ” can exercise this authority. Through this statement, South Korea withdrew the military’s usual personnel, military supplies, management and other administrative affairs and rights. Soon, the United States recognized that the South Korean military could independently undertake combat missions such as “reverse osmosis” and “counter-espionage” without having to go through the “United Nations Command”.
  In 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 3390, hoping to dissolve the “United Nations Command” on January 1, 1976, and no longer retain troops under the flag of the United Nations stationed in South Korea. In 1977, the U.S. and South Korean defense ministers held the tenth security agreement meeting and reached an agreement on the establishment of the U.S.-South Korea Combined Forces Command (CFC). In November 1978, the operational control of the Korean Army was officially transferred to the US-ROK Joint Command.
tortuous course

  In the 1980s, as South Korea’s national strength increased significantly and national sentiments rapidly warmed up, calls in South Korea to take back national defense autonomy and change the unequal status of the United States and South Korea grew louder and louder. At the end of 1987, South Korean President Roh Tae-woo made his first public request. Take back control of the Korean Army’s operations. The two countries reached a consensus at the 24th Security Conference in 1992 to divide operational control into “peacetime operational control” and “wartime operational control”, and handed over the former to the South Korean side. In December 1994, South Korea regained control of peacetime operations, but the control of wartime operations remained in the hands of the US-ROK Joint Command. The distinction between the so-called “peacetime” and “wartime” is based on the “combat readiness situation” of the Korean army from high to low level 1 to 5, and levels 5 to 4 are “peaceful”, and the combat control of the Korean army belongs to the joint Korean army. Staff Headquarters; entering level 3 and above is “wartime”. According to the “Joint Authority Appointment Matters” between South Korea and the United States, all operational control of the South Korean military belongs to the United States and South Korea Joint Command. In fact, operational control mainly plays a role in wartime, so in peacetime operational control is more of a political significance.
  After Roh Moo-hyun came to power in 2003, he actively implemented the “independent national defense” policy, and once again raised the issue of taking back the Korean army’s wartime operational control. The United States believes that the Korean army has many shortcomings in strategic early warning, intelligence collection and command and control, and the Korean army needs to fill in the shortcomings and weaknesses before handing over. Therefore, South Korea in the “2004-2008 mid-term national defense plan” determined that the primary task is to build early warning, command and control capabilities. In September 2005, South Korea formally proposed to the United States that it hoped to regain control of wartime operations by 2012, and then the two countries reached a consensus on this at the 2006 leaders’ summit. In February 2007, at the US-ROK defense ministers meeting, the two countries decided that on April 17, 2012, the United States would hand over control of wartime operations to South Korea.
  However, after Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008, he changed the de-escalation policy towards North Korea since Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, and demanded a re-evaluation of the rationality of handing over the Korean military’s wartime operational control. Subsequently, the North Korean nuclear test and the “Tianan Ship” incident broke out one after another, and the relationship between North Korea and South Korea was also highly tense. At the Group of Twenty (G20) summit held in March 2010, the leaders of the United States and South Korea announced that the handover of wartime operational control would be delayed until December 1, 2015.
  The Park Geun-hye administration, which took office in 2013, largely continued the conservative stance of the previous administration. At the 46th U.S.-ROK Security Agreement held in October 2014, the two countries announced that the handover time would be postponed again, and reached a consensus on promoting the “conversion of qualified operational control rights”, and established a “substantial increase in the command of the Korean military”. control capability, South Korea’s ability to deal with North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, and a stable security environment on the Korean Peninsula.” According to the objective conditions at the time, this delayed the handover of operational control almost indefinitely.
  After Moon Jae-in assumed the presidency of South Korea in May 2017, he re-raised the issue of regaining control of wartime operations. In October 2018, the U.S. and South Korean defense ministers signed a number of documents including the “Conditional Handover of Wartime Operational Control Plan”. After the two sides agreed that the U.S. military would transfer this authority, the structure of the U.S.-ROK Joint Command would remain unchanged, and it would be replaced by a South Korean general. The commander of the Korea-U.S. Joint Command, the U.S. military general will serve as a deputy, and the U.S. military will continue to be stationed in South Korea. After that, the U.S. military formally assessed whether South Korea has the ability to lead coalition operations, covering four areas: operations, intelligence, communications, and military supplies. It is divided into three stages: initial combat capability, full combat capability, and full mission capability.

  In August 2019, the United States completed the first-phase assessment of the South Korean military, and then the two sides had major differences on the implementation of the second-phase assessment. The second phase of the assessment, which took place in August 2019, was postponed to 2021. Due to the impact of the new crown epidemic, the scale of the US-ROK joint military exercise in March 2021 has been greatly reduced, and the second-stage evaluation link has not been included. Since then, according to the statement of the South Korean military, the second stage of the evaluation has been postponed to 2022. In April 2022, the United States and South Korea held a joint military exercise in the first half of the year. This was the last joint exercise during Moon Jae-in’s tenure. The results were still not included in the evaluation process, which means that he proposed “recovering wartime operational control during his tenure.” “The promise cannot be fulfilled.
The primary reason is that the United States is unwilling to loosen control

  The issue of the transfer of control over wartime between South Korea and the United States has been delayed for a long time, and there are many complicated factors inside and outside.
  First of all, the United States and South Korea have their own political intentions, especially the attitudes of various political forces in South Korea are completely different. As soon as leaders of different camps in South Korea come to power, they will take different attitudes on this issue. Progressive forces such as Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in have strongly advocated the recovery of this right, so that South Korea can appear in the political landscape of Northeast Asia in a more flexible manner, and strive to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula. When Lee Myung-bak, Park Geun-hye and other conservatives were in power, they tended to take a tough stance toward the DPRK. Tensions on the peninsula intensified, and they held a relatively negative attitude toward taking back control of wartime operations. The differences in South Korea’s judgment on the overall strength of the South Korean army have exacerbated this tension. One side believes that after decades of development, the South Korean army can carry out combat missions independently with personnel and equipment; the other side believes that the South Korean army has long relied on the US military and The intelligence, command, communication and strike capabilities are relatively weak and still require the support of the US military.

In April 2022, on the eve of the US-ROK joint military exercise in the first half of this year, South Koreans held a rally against the joint military exercise near the US embassy in Seoul in Seoul.

  The United States has its own considerations. On the one hand, it is worried that it will lose its dominant position in the military game on the peninsula after surrendering the control of wartime operations. Dominate South Korea’s security strategy by controlling the South Korean military and maintain the rationality of the presence of the U.S. military. At present, there are more than 28,000 US troops stationed in South Korea, while the size of the South Korean army is about 530,000. The commander of the US military stationed in South Korea is also the commander of the Korea-US joint command. In addition, South Korea bears the labor and base costs of the US military stationed in South Korea, so the United States can control more than 500,000 Korean troops at the least cost, and has a large number of US troops stationed in South Korea. The base, indeed, is “the best of both worlds”. Therefore, although there are policy discontinuities caused by the change of the Korean government, the most important root cause of the repeated delay in the transfer of command is the reluctance of the United States to relax its control over South Korea and to return the control to South Korea.
  The benefits to South Korea of ​​taking back wartime operational control are clear. First, from the perspective of the country’s military sovereignty, this move will become an important symbol of South Korea’s move towards “independent national defense”, which can greatly enhance South Korea’s national status and make it more influential in the US-South Korea alliance. Second, it is conducive to enhancing South Korea’s national self-esteem. As one of the developed countries, South Korea is relatively prosperous and its international status is constantly improving. More and more people are demanding military autonomy. Third, it is conducive to independent exchanges and communication between the DPRK and the DPRK, and the constraints from the United States can be reduced in the exchanges between the DPRK and the DPRK.
  However, even if South Korea regains control of wartime operations, South Korea and the United States will continue to maintain a military alliance, so there are still many problems to be solved, such as the joint command and coordination system between South Korea and the United States, the sharing of defense costs for the US military stationed in South Korea, the transfer of US military bases in South Korea, The issue of strategic flexibility of U.S. troops in South Korea, etc. It is conceivable that under the premise that the U.S.-ROK alliance has not fundamentally changed, the game of manipulation and anti-manipulation between South Korea and the United States will continue over many issues such as wartime operational control for a period of time in the future. At the same time, with the heightened awareness of the Korean people’s national self-determination, the pressure on the United States to face the dilemma of the South Korea-US alliance will also increase.