War control of forces in South Korea reflects ongoing threat from North

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter receives a tour of Observation Post Ouelette between North and South Korea on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015. The visit was Carter's first to the buffer zone between North and South Korea to highlight the U.S. commitment to its South Korean ally.


By TARA COPP | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 1, 2015

PANMUNJOM, Korea — Looking  across the Demilitarized Zone for the first time as U.S. defense secretary, Ash Carter urged North Korea to back off its nuclear pursuits even as he discusses a security plan with South Korea that assumes continued provocation from Pyongyang.

“We continue to call on North Korea to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula,” Carter told South Korean and U.S. reporters Sunday just steps from the three-inch, raised-concrete berm that marks the demarcation between the two Koreas. “These provocations are only adding to tensions on the peninsula.”

Carter is in Seoul for the 2015 Security Consultative Meeting where the U.S. and South Korea are expected to announce the conditions-based terms under which operational control for South Korea’s defense during wartime would shift to Seoul.

Wartime powers were to have shifted to a South Korean commander next month, but last year, the U.S. and Seoul agreed to delay the handover, citing North Korea’s growing nuclear threat. Seoul maintains control of its forces during peacetime, but a U.S. general would lead the allies’ forces if war broke out.

A senior U.S. defense official familiar with the agreement’s terms said they are meant to be flexible to give South Korea time to attain defensive capabilities necessary to take the lead, something he thought was likely years away.

“There are a variety of capabilities the ROK will need to develop in order for it to effectively assume command in war,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was our intention in moving to a conditions-based transfer plan that the timing not be strict. So I’d expect it to take a few years.”

The shift also removes pressure on South Korea to assume the lead amid signs that North Korea is preparing for a fourth nuclear test. Reuters reported last week North Korea is digging a new tunnel at the same site where it has conducted its three increasingly powerful tests, the most recent in February 2013.

“The nuclear dimension of the North Korean threat has arguably been important in influencing the decision to delay,” said Scott Snyder, the senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

According to the same senior defense official, the agreement says South Korea will develop the capabilities to have the command and control, communications, intelligence and surveillance capabilities to be able to detect and lead an allied response to any detected threats from a North Korean missile or other attack. It will also obtain counter-battery fires capable of identifying the source of a rocket or mortar launch, then firing artillery to destroy it.

On the plane en route to South Korea, Carter confirmed progress but said he wasn’t certain all the details would be finalized Monday.

“We’ve agreed on a way forward, now it’s a matter of working out the details,” Carter said.

The details, Carter said, are to ensure that the capabilities on the South Korean side are advanced enough that a transfer would be undetectable, and may have ”a strengthening effect.”

The U.S. has had lead responsibility for the defense of South Korea since the two countries signed a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1953 following the cease-fire that ended fighting in the Korean War, but not hostilities. The agreement to be concluded Monday reflects unease on both sides over the last decade that the previous deadline-driven transfer — under which South Korea would have assumed the lead roles this year for its defenses and the protection of the 28,500 U.S. servicemembers stationed here — was not optimal given recent more aggressive moves by North Korea.

In a meeting with reporters last week, U.S. Strategic Command commander Adm. Cecil Haney said he is concerned by North Korean claims that it has made gains in miniaturizing nuclear warheads, matured its submarine-launched ballistic missile capability and further improved its KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile, which North Korea displayed publicly last month at a military parade.

“With those kind of changes,” Haney said, “this is a different environment.”

The OPCON transfer originally was planned for 2007 but was pushed to 2012. It was then pushed to 2015 amid questions about the South’s readiness for the job following the North’s attacks on South Korea’s Cheonan warship and an artillery attack on the civilian-populated Yeonpyeong border island in 2010.



Secretary of Defense Ash Carter receives a tour of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015. The visit was Carter's first to the buffer zone to highlight the U.S. commitment to its South Korean ally.