S. Korea-U.S. missile defense exercise crucial for OPCON transfer: ministry
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, June 11 (Yonhap) -- A missile defense exercise that South Korea and the United States have jointly conducted has nothing to do with any attempt to integrate the South's anti-missile system into the broader U.S. system, the defense ministry said Thursday.
Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo revealed Wednesday the two countries carried out an exercise in the first half of the year to test integrated responses to North Korean missile threats. It was the first time that such an exercise has been made public.
The revelation immediately sparked speculation that the exercise may be part of efforts to get South Korea's missile defense system incorporated into the broader U.S. system, something that China has long warned against.
The defense ministry flatly rejected such speculation.
"The exercise is a regular one and part of (the two countries') preparations for North Korea's ballistic missile launches," deputy defense ministry spokesperson Col. Moon Hong-sik told a regular briefing Thursday.
Rejecting speculation about incorporation into the American missile defense system, Moon stressed that the exercise was meant to share information on trajectories of North Korean missiles and coordinate their responses, including detection and interception.
He also said the exercise was crucial in improving South Korea's missile defense capabilities ahead of the country's envisioned takeover of the wartime operational control (OPCON) of its forces from the U.S.
"This is deeply related to the OPCON transition. It is to secure our military's key capabilities linked to the OPCON transfer," the official noted.
South Korea and the U.S. have been working for the conditions-based OPCON transfer.
The right conditions required to be created before the OPCON transfer are South Korea's capabilities to lead the allies' combined defense mechanism, its capacity for initial responses to the North's nuclear and missile threats, and a stable security environment on the peninsula and in the region.
South Korea 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 the U.S. No specific deadline has been set, though many see the two sides eyeing 2022, or thereabouts, as the target date.
"The exercise, named the ballistic missile defense link integration validate event, has long been held on a quarterly basis, and it specifically targets missiles from North Korea," a ministry official said.
South Korea has its own Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system as part of a bedrock scheme to counter North Korea's nuclear and missile threats, he noted.
North Korea has continued to strengthen its missile capabilities amid stalled denuclearization talks with the United States. Last year, it showed off several new types of short-range ballistic missiles, including its version of Russia's Iskander.
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