SEOUL, Oct. 29 (Yonhap) -- The timing of South Korea's resumption of wartime operational control (OPCON) from the United States has gained fresh attention due to a subtle change in the wording of their annual defense ministers' joint statement released Saturday.
At the close of the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), Defense Minister Song Young-moo and his U.S. counterpart James Mattis issued a statement that affirmed their leaders' decision in June to enable an "expeditious" OPCON transfer.
In last year's SCM document, the allies' defense chiefs mentioned "stable wartime OPCON transfer at a proper time."
The change in the wording appears to reflect South Korean President Moon Jae-in's pursuit of a transfer at an early date, observers said.
During his election campaign, Moon pledged to push for the takeover within his five-year term, which ends in 2022. But he has recently referred to an "early" transfer, in an apparent reflection of North Korea's escalating military threats.
During a joint press conference Saturday, Song cautioned against interpreting the change in the wording as advancing the timing of OPCON transition.
"This is not to advance the timing, but it means that we will try to quickly make conditions (for the transfer) develop, and we will resume (OPCON) when the time is right," Song said.
Following Pyongyang's continued provocations, including its sixth and most powerful nuke test Sept. 3, conservatives here have renewed their calls for Moon to scrap his drive for an early OPCON takeover.
The South handed over operational control of its troops to the U.S.-led U.N. command during the 1950-53 Korean War. It retook peacetime OPCON in 1994, but wartime OPCON remains in the hands of its ally, the U.S.
Seoul was supposed to regain wartime OPCON in 2015, but the transfer was postponed indefinitely, as the allies had agreed in 2014 to a "conditions-based" handover in the wake of Pyongyang's continued nuclear and missile tests.
OPCON transfer has long been a highly polarizing issue in South Korea.
Those in favor of it -- mostly political liberals -- say that Seoul needs to reduce its heavy reliance on the U.S. and strengthen its independent defense capabilities from the perspective of national pride.
But opponents argue that Seoul's military leadership is not yet fully ready to confront the nuclear-armed North and that relying on the U.S., the world's strongest military power, is the most effective way to ensure national security.
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