Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told Saenuri Party lawmakers on Thursday that the government is discussing with the U.S. another delay in the transfer of full control of South Korean troops to Seoul. The handover has already been postponed from 2012 until 2015.
But Kim told lawmakers that the security situation on the Korean peninsula has "worsened" since North Korea's third nuclear test in February and added that preparations for the South Korean military to assume full control of its own troops is being delayed.
But the U.S. believes otherwise, with Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff on Thursday telling the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee the current timing of the transfer is "appropriate."
Once South Korea gains wartime control of its military, the U.S.-Korea Combined Forces Command will be dismantled shifting the very foundation of the South’s security framework. The prevailing concern is that the handover will hurt South Korea’s defenses. Disagreement between the two allies on such a fundamental question brings serious concern for national security.
Kim said the main reasons for seeking yet another delay are security concerns, the threat of a North Korean attack and a lack of preparation by the South Korean military. Until now, the Defense Ministry has said there are no problems in meeting the 2015 deadline.
The handover involves a lot more than just paperwork. It means the transfer of important military responsibilities. It is difficult to assess how much time and money the Korean military will need to spend to assume a major task currently being handled by the U.S. Yet it has been making conflicting arguments about the handover depending who was president. This has naturally fomented public distrust.
It is time for the military to tell the truth about how ready it is for the handover. Public support is crucial in deciding such a momentous question.
Judging by Dempsey's comments, Washington is highly likely to stick to the original plan and hand over full control in 2015. South Korea may end up paying a high price for trying to delay the handover yet again. It needs to be careful that measure that was intended to strengthen the alliance will not end up harming it.