South Korea and the U.S. are holding their annual Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul on Wednesday, where their defense chiefs discussing the transfer of full operational control of South Korean troops to Seoul. This is now scheduled for December 2015 after Seoul won one delay from Washington, but now it wants to put the handover off even longer, for fear of a security vacuum once Combined Forces Command is dismantled.
When asked by reporters on Monday what the most important capacity for the South Korean military is if it is to regain full troop control in war as well as peacetime, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said missile defense. He added that intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and command control, communications and computer capabilities are also vital.
The U.S. has pressed South Korea for over a decade to join its missile defense system, but Seoul has refused so far citing the astronomical costs compared to the concrete benefits the program offers. Joining would also anger China, which views the program as a threat, and that in turn would only complicate South Korea's attempts to gain Chinese cooperation in getting North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons.
But when it comes to transferring full troop control, the opposite is happening, and the U.S. wants to hand everything over to Seoul as fast as possible while South Korea is seeking to maintain American participation.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration persuaded the U.S. to hand over full troop control by April 2012, but the Lee Myeong-bak administration managed to postpone it to the end of 2015 citing a lack of time to prepare for the transfer. The Park Geun-hye administration is now seeking another delay, but Washington insists on the agreed date.
It seems that Hagel is making a quid-pro-quo offer: join the missile defense program and another delay of the handover is possible. But the two issues should be kept separate. If the U.S. insists on handing over full troop control when South Korea is not fully prepared because it does not join the missile defense program, that would be tantamount to giving up on defending an ally.
Seoul wants another delay in the transfer because North Korea now has nuclear weapons, which fundamentally changes the security landscape on the Korean Peninsula.
The Washington Post reports that the U.S. government and lawmakers are disappointed by Seoul's request for another postponement, viewing the delay as South Korean reluctance to take responsibility for its own defense. It is not a good idea to let the matter foment distrust between Seoul and Washington.
Operational troop control should only be transferred when there is no doubt that the South can defend itself effectively in a crisis. There are only two years and two months left before the deadline. Uncertainties about the date could be fatal. South Korea and the U.S. should remember the strong bond that has held them together for the last 60 years when they approach the issue.