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U.S., S. Korea delay OPCON transfer until 2015

TOKYO — Current tensions on the Korean peninsula have forced a push-back of the date when South Korea will assume wartime command of its own troops by three years, the United States and South Korea announced Saturday.

Meeting at the G-20 economic summit in Toronto, President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak agreed to delay the current April 17, 2012, date to December 2015, according to media reports.

Until then, the top U.S. general in South Korea will maintain operational control of all forces in the country in the event of war.

The postponement of the so-called OPCON plan “reflects the current security condition on the Korean peninsula and will strengthen the alliance of the two nations,” Lee was quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency in a joint press conference with Obama after the summit.

Obama said the delay was “appropriate,” according to Yonhap.

The announcement was not unexpected.

North Korea’s testing of missiles and nuclear weapons last year had raised concerns about proceeding with the OPCON transfer as initially planned in 2007. A number of analysts and former military officials, including a group of retired top South Korean generals, had raised questions about whether South Korea is ready for the transfer.

The March 26 torpedoing of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which the U.S. and South Korea have blamed on North Korea, further added to concerns about the South’s preparedness.

Earlier this month, Gen. Lee Sang-eui, chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, submitted his resignation in an upheaval over the command structure’s handling of the Cheonan attack.

The move came after a Korean audit agency recommended that Lee and 24 other top generals be disciplined for not ensuring the combat readiness of South Korean forces.

Two weeks ago, South Korea’s Ministry of Defense and U.S. Forces Korea announced that a major U.S.-South Korean military exercise this summer would be lead by USFK commander Gen. Walter Sharp — who also heads the Combined Forces Command — instead of a South Korean general.

The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, designed to test OPCON, had been led by a South Korean general for the past two years.

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