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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on June 5)

All News 07:49 June 05, 2019

Defense talks
Korea, US need to ensure combined readiness

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan met in Seoul earlier this week to discuss some crucial bilateral issues, including the relocation of the ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC) and the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON). It is the acting secretary's first visit to Korea since taking office in January.

The acting U.S. defense secretary also met with President Moon Jae-in at Cheong Wa Dae Monday to discuss the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and strengthening of the Korea-U.S. alliance. Shanahan thanked ROK's "continued support for the enforcement of U.N. Security Council Resolutions until North Korea achieves final, fully-verifiable denuclearization," according to a readout released Monday by the U.S. Department of Defense.

During the meeting, both assessed that the two countries' alliance is "ironclad." President Moon stressed that the importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance in pursuing North Korea's denuclearization and establishing permanent peace on the peninsula. However, Shanahan's visit has left behind lingering questions about how some of the upcoming crucial changes regarding the CFC and the wartime OPCON will affect the combined defense posture.

These questions could aggravate the mounting concerns raised by some Koreans who have criticized Moon of weakening the alliance due to his excessive focus on inter-Korean projects and improving relations with North Korea despite little progress toward denuclearization.

During the Korea-U.S. defense talks Monday at the Ministry of National Defense's compound in Yongsan, Seoul, the two countries agreed to relocate the CFC's headquarters, currently in Seoul, to Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, which houses the U.S. Forces Korea's Camp Humphrey's base. This is a departure from what the two countries had discussed last year, which was to relocate the CFC's headquarters to the defense ministry's compound in Yongsan.

In addition, Seoul and Washington approved a plan to name a Korean four-star general to lead the CFC, which is currently led by a four-star U.S. general. The defense leaders of the two countries also agreed on the early transfer of wartime operational control.

After the Korea-U.S. defense talks, the Ministry of Defense said that these measures will improve operational efficiency and the combined defense posture. But it remains to be seen whether the changes will actually translate to greater operational efficiency in an emergency. Concerns are being raised that it will be difficult for the defense authorities of the two countries to maintain a ready system of cooperation if the CFC moves out of Seoul and into Pyeongtaek, far away from the Ministry of Defense and the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff. There are also questions about whether a Korean four-star general will be able to effectively control the CFC after the transfer of wartime OPCON.

The defense authorities of the two countries need to put these and other concerns to rest by closely cooperating ahead of the upcoming changes.

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