Troop Control Handover Is a Vital and Delicate Issue

The defense ministers of South Korea and the U.S. have agreed to put off the final decision about the handover of full operational control of South Korean troops to Seoul until next year. The handover is scheduled for December 2015, but Seoul wants another delay for fear of a security vacuum.

The two countries in their annual Security Consultative Meeting on Wednesday agreed to form a joint assessment team to gauge the readiness of South Korean troops for the handover and agree on an optimum date.

This is an important concession from the U.S. Defense Department, which has so far been reluctant to delay the handover any further after it was already once postponed from 2012.

The nuclear threat from North Korea has worsened considerably since the mid-2000s, when Seoul and Washington first began discussing the handover. After conducting three nuclear tests since then -- 2006, 2009 and 2013 -- North Korea is now believed to be armed with nuclear bombs. The North also succeeded in launching a space rocket last year to test intercontinental ballistic missile technology.

On Wednesday, Seoul and Washington agreed they would deploy all the weapons at their disposal to preempt any nuclear attack from the North. If this suppression tactic is to succeed, the two allies must accurately assess telltale signs of an impending nuclear strike. For that, U.S. satellite surveillance technology is essential, and Washington will continue to provide such high-tech assistance to the South Korean military after the handover.

But it remains to be seen whether that cooperation can be as comprehensive as the one offered under the present Combined Forces Command.

Both Seoul and Washington must approach the issue with a sense of urgency and ensure that the handover does not create a defense vacuum that could trigger a North Korean provocation. Both must look for the best option and timing. In the process, Seoul must show Washington that it is not trying to duck its defense responsibilities but to strengthen the bilateral partnership. A breakdown in trust between the allies would undermine even the most expensive weapons that money can buy.
englishnews@chosun.com / Oct. 04, 2013 12:26 KST