Cracks in the alliance
The annual South Korea-U.S. Consultative Meeting (SCM) on Wednesday explicitly showed schisms in the alliance. After Defense Minister Suh Wook stressed the need to meet the requirements for the transfer of wartime operational control (Opcon) as early as possible, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said it will take time. Esper demanded South Korea increase its share of defense spending apparently in return for maintaining the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). In a joint statement issued after the meeting at the Pentagon, the phrase "maintaining the USFK at the current level" has disappeared. A scheduled joint press conference was also cancelled.
Allies can disagree on sensitive issues, of course. But defense for South Korea — the core value of the alliance — must not be compromised. In 2014, South Korea and the United States agreed to a transfer of Opcon based on South Korea's joint operation capability, ability to counter North Korean nuclear provocation and situation around the Korean Peninsula.
After six years, however, none of the requirements has been met. Instead, North Korea showed off a very large intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying two to three warheads and allegedly striking the U.S. mainland in a military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party on Oct 10.
And yet, our military has not conducted a joint drill with the USFK over the last three years. Even the commander of the USFK expressed security concerns. To make matters worse, an opportunity to verify their joint command capabilities has disappeared due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, our top brass nonchalantly vowed to advance the date for an Opcon transfer through easing of the requirements.
Our military leaders are hurriedly pushing the Opcon transfer due to President Moon Jae-in's desire to achieve the transfer within his term. An Opcon transfer is possible only when our military can defend against North Korea's aggression.
Fortunately, this year's joint statement stipulated that an Opcon transfer can take place if the specified requirements are "sufficiently met." Nonetheless, both sides could not reach a consensus on defense spending. In a joint statement after last year's SCM, the phrase "maintaining the USFK at the current level" was inserted. Security experts say the United States wants to use a troop pull-out threat to pressure South Korea to pay more.
U.S. President Donald Trump's overbearing demands are not good. But the issue should not widen cracks in the alliance. We hope Seoul and Washington narrow their differences through negotiations.