WASHINGTON — The transfer of wartime control over allied forces on the Korean peninsula has been pushed back again, U.S. and South Korean officials announced Thursday.
During peacetime, South Korea is in charge of its own forces. But under the current arrangement, U.S. commanders would take command of all U.S. and South Korean troops in the event of war with North Korea.
Plans had called for that power to be transferred to Seoul’s military leaders in December 2015.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo signed a memorandum of understanding that called for the transfer of operational control to be “conditions based,” meaning the move has been postponed indefinitely.
At a joint news conference at the Pentagon, Han said the South Korean government hopes to develop “the core military capabilities” needed for the OPCON transfer to take place by mid-2020.
“While this agreement will delay the scheduled transfer of operational control, it will ensure that when a transfer does occur, [South] Korean forces have the necessary defensive capabilities to address an intensifying North Korean threat,” Hagel said.
This isn’t the first time that the transfer has been postponed. It was first scheduled to take place in 2007, but the date was pushed back to 2012, and then again to 2015, after North Korean provocations, including a nuclear weapons test, ballistic missile launches, artillery attacks on South Korean islands and the sinking of a South Korean warship, which killed 46 sailors.
In recent days, troops from both sides exchanged gunfire across the border.
“The security situation on the Korean peninsula is more precarious than ever,” Han said.
The U.S. has maintained a large force on the peninsula since the Korean War. There are 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea alongside about 600,000 South Korean troops. They are facing down 1 million North Korean soldiers, most of whom are positioned within 100 miles of the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas.
The North also has massive amounts of artillery within striking distance of Seoul, as well as long-range missiles and other unconventional capabilities that could threaten allied forces.
The South Korean government has also agreed to postpone the desired movement of American troops away from the North-South border. The combined forces headquarters will remain in its present location in Yongsan until the OPCON transfer takes place, and a U.S. artillery brigade will remain at Camp Casey near the demilitarized zone, according to Han.
“We believe that this would be able to deter North Korean provocations,” Han said.