The Korea Herald


Pentagon chief says wartime operational control transition will take more time

By Yonhap

Published : March 18, 2021 - 13:08

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South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook (R) and his US counterpart, Lloyd Austin, pose for a photo prior to their talks at the defense ministry in Seoul on Wednesday. Austin arrived in Seoul earlier in the day for a three-day visit. (Yonhap) South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook (R) and his US counterpart, Lloyd Austin, pose for a photo prior to their talks at the defense ministry in Seoul on Wednesday. Austin arrived in Seoul earlier in the day for a three-day visit. (Yonhap)

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Thursday that the envisioned transition of the wartime operational control (OPCON) will take more time, though the two sides will continue to work toward the goal.   

The two sides are pushing for the conditions-based OPCON transition of South Korean troops from Washington to Seoul. Though it is not time-based, Seoul hopes to take it back within the term of the current Moon Jae-in administration that ends in May 2022.

"While meeting all the conditions for this transition will take more time, I am confident that this process will strengthen our alliance," Austin said during a press conference after holding a "two plus two" meeting with his South Korean counterpart Suh Wook, South Korea's Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Seoul.   

Noting that the two sides "continue to make progress" toward the eventual transition, Austin said, "We have a lot to look forward to together."

The transition process has been somewhat delayed, as the two sides were not able to carry out a planned Full Operational Capability (FOC) test because they've decided to scale down their combined exercises amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Austin said his top agenda was ensuring the maintenance of a "Fight Tonight" readiness posture.

"The United States and the Republic of Korea continue to maintain a robust combined defense posture. We also remain committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. There is no daylight between us on this point," he said, stressing his country's commitment to the defense of South Korea using "the full range of capabilities, including our extended deterrence."

Asked about any impacts of their scaled-down combined exercises on the readiness posture, Austin said the two sides are "always looking for ways to make training better."

"I think, not only here but around the globe, we've learned to be flexible, we learn to be adaptive and we have always been effective," Austin said.

Any future plans will also be made jointly by the two sides, he added.

Over the past couple of years, their major combined exercises have been adjusted due to the pandemic and amid peace efforts with North Korea. Last year, they canceled the major springtime exercise. This year's one has been held on a smaller scale without outdoor drills and was to end later in the day.

Asked about the possible reduction of the level of American troops stationed in South Korea, Minister Suh said that any adjustment of the US Forces Korea (USFK) troops was not among their agenda items.

The US has been pushing for greater "strategic flexibility" for its forces deployed around the world, which sparked speculation that it could consider pulling some troops out of South Korea.

Currently, around 28,500 US service members are stationed in South Korea.

Calling China as one of his department's "pacing challenges in the years ahead," Austin said that the US continues to work with South Korea to "identify areas for collaboration with our respective regional strategies."

On Wednesday, Austin said at the start of his one-on-one talks with Suh that China and North Korea pose "unprecedented challenges," which makes the alliance more important than ever.

Some have raised the chance of the US pressing Seoul to join its Quad forum, but Suh said that there were no suggestions about specific military cooperative moves with the members that include Japan, Australia and India, though Austin explained the issue in broader terms.

It is widely regarded as a US-led coalition against China.

During the press conference, Austin also reiterated the need for trilateral defense cooperation involving Japan "to address both current and future shared challenges."

"South Korea also shared such a need, though Seoul and Tokyo have some history issues which remain unresolved," Suh said. "The defense ministry will continue to strengthen exchanges and cooperation with Japan through bilateral and multilateral meetings and among their service branches."

In 2019, the Seoul government decided not to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a bilateral military information-sharing pact with Japan, in protest of its export curbs, though it suspended the decision at the last minute amid US pressure against its termination. (Yonhap)