By Song Sang-ho
WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States will hold their annual defense chiefs' talks Wednesday to discuss the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON), the proposed suspension of their air exercise and other key security issues, Seoul officials said.
Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and his U.S. counterpart, James Mattis, will attend the 50th Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in Washington as the allies seek to ensure close coordination for their shared goal of the complete denuclearization of North Korea.
At the talks, the two sides are expected to work out an agreement over how to reconstitute the command structure of their combined forces in line with a "conditions-based" OPCON transfer, which they have sought to enable "expeditiously."
Following the OPCON transition, a South Korean four-star general will serve as the forces' commander while a U.S. general will be a deputy chief. Currently, a U.S. general leads the allies' combined forces.
Jeong and Mattis are also likely to reach agreement over a set of other key documents concerning how the South Korea-led combined defense system will operate.
As the two sides work to flesh out their transfer plans, the step-by-step work of verifying South Korea's capability to lead combined operations will pick up pace. The allies will first verify Seoul's initial operational capability, then its full operational and full mission capabilities.
The completion of the verification process does not guarantee the OPCON transfer, as there are other conditions for Seoul to meet, such as the overall security environment of the peninsula and the region, that are conducive to the transfer.
South Korea handed over the operational control over its troops to the commander of the U.S.-led U.N. Command during the 1950-53 Korean War. It was then transferred to the chief of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command when the command was launched in 1978.
South Korea retook peacetime OPCON in 1994, but the U.S. still possesses OPCON in the event of war. The transfer of wartime OPCON was supposed to occur in 2015 but was postponed, as the allies agreed in 2014 to a conditions-based handover due to Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests.
At this year's SCM, the allies will also agree on the proposed suspension of their annual massive Vigilant Ace air exercise, which involves a large fleet of high-end aircraft, including radar-evading fighter jets, in a show of aerial superiority against a potential adversary.
Speculation has persisted that the exercise will be skipped to boost ongoing diplomacy with Pyongyang.
The U.S. Department of Defense has said that the allies agreed to suspend the exercise. But Seoul's defense ministry said the allies just weighed "various ideas, including (suspension)" in an apparent indication of differences over the fate of this year's exercise.
Jeong and Mattis will also discuss cooperation in enforcing the September inter-Korean military agreement aimed at reducing tensions and preventing accidental clashes. Reports have said that Washington has cast a cautious eye over the fast pace of inter-Korean military cooperation in the light of Pyongyang having yet to take concrete denuclearization steps.
The agreement includes withdrawing some border guard posts, disarming the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone and setting up air, maritime and ground buffer zones where military exercises are banned.
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