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Defense chief admits to Seoul's offer of OPCON transfer delay: lawmaker

All Headlines 16:01 July 18, 2013

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, July 18 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's defense minister confirmed Thursday that he had requested the U.S. government to reconsider the date of the planned 2015 transition of wartime operational control (OPCON) to Seoul in light of growing threats posed by North Korea, a ruling party lawmaker said.

Calls have grown to postpone the transfer of OPCON following North Korea's third nuclear test in February and its war-like threats against Seoul and Washington earlier this year. Seoul officials, however, continue to state that preparations are still on schedule to meet the December 2015 deadline.

A top American official recently told Yonhap News Agency that the South Korean government had requested another delay to OPCON transition following this spring's round of North Korean provocations and related organizations are currently looking into the proposal.

In a meeting with ruling party lawmakers at the National Assembly on Thursday, Kim Kwan-jin admitted that he had made such an offer in a meeting with Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in late May, according to multiple participants in the closed-door meeting.

Given that the matter of ongoing discussion was disclosed to media by the senior American official, Kim said he believes the U.S. government is positively considering the proposal.

"Hadn't (the U.S. government) positively reviewed the offer, why would (the official) tell it to media?" a Saenuri Party lawmaker belonging to the parliamentary defense committee quoted him as saying. "U.S. officials are having internal consultations, and it seems that the issue in discussion was released to media."

Kim said he hopes to receive an answer to his request during an upcoming Security Consultative Meeting with his American counterpart slated for October in Seoul.

The defense chief said the proposal reflected rising tension with a nuclear-armed North Korea and the lack of time needed to reinforce South Korean forces' intelligence and combat capability to deter North Korean aggression, participants said.

In the run-up to the scheduled transfer, Seoul has been stepping up its combat capability with an advanced missile defense system and longer ballistic missiles as the South Korean forces are supposed to play a leading role under the new command structure.

South Korea handed over operational control to the U.S.-led U.N. troops during the 1950-53 Korean War. Seoul regained peacetime OPCON in 1994.

Seoul initially agreed to take back wartime OPCON in April 2012, but it requested a delay in the schedule shortly after North Korea's deadly torpedo attack on a South Korean warship in March 2010. Washington accepted it.

The allies have been jointly working to make a new command structure to maintain a combined posture even after the Combined Forces Command, the current joint body, is dissolved following the transfer.

Under the proposed structure, the South Korean military will play a leading role, and American forces will offer support during a potential wartime situation, fighting side by side with their Korean allies.

Conservatives and retired generals, however, raised question over the new structure in which American forces play a supporting role, claiming it would send the wrong signal to Pyongyang. They also expressed concerns that the South Korean armed forces are not ready to deter a North Korean nuclear threat, citing its heavy reliance on U.S. satellites for monitoring North Korea's nuclear and missile facilities.

Militaries of South Korea and the U.S. earlier agreed to conduct three assessments during their joint drills until summer 2015 before implementing the agreement later that year.

Some raised the possibility that the two sides might reschedule the plan during the assessment process if a need for further postponement rises due to the security situation on the peninsula.

The U.S. Forces Korea said military officials of the two nations are in consultations over the matter, stressing strong joint deterrence against the belligerent communist nation.

"Both sides have long agreed that certain conditions have to be met before OPCON transition is to occur. There is no change in that position," USFK said in a statement. "Both sides have reaffirmed and continue to work to meet (that goal)."


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