By Kim Tae-gyu
The transition of wartime operational command (OPCON) from Washington to Seoul scheduled in Dec. 2015 may be delayed once again as Pyongyang continues to ramp up tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
A growing number of senior officers have raised the possibility that the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) will keep wartime control of all troops even after 2015.
In particular, Defense Minister-designate Kim Byung-kwan ignited a dispute last Friday during his confirmation hearing.
"Although it is still set to be transferred to Korea, we need to reevaluate if we're fully prepared to take over amid growing tensions between the two Koreas," said Kim who served as the deputy commander of the CFC between 2006 and 2008. "We can reconsider the transfer following a reevaluation."
His remarks resonate with those of Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to Seoul, who said that the U.S. will not proceed with the handover of wartime command if the South is not ready following the North's Feb. 12 nuclear test.
President Park Geun-hye's pick for the National Intelligence Service chief, former Army Chief of Staff Nam Jae-joon, is known to oppose the wartime OPCON transition. He was also a deputy command of the CFC.
President Park's senior foreign affairs adviser Ju Chul-ki said last week that the government will go ahead with the wartime command handover but added that his team plans to consult with Kim if he takes over the Ministry of Defense.
Despite many suspicions on Kim's eligibility, it is rumored that Park will officially appoint him Tuesday. However, her spokesman Yoon Chang-jung refused to confirm this.
In July 1950, a month after the North launched the three-year Korean War, the South relinquished both its wartime and peacetime operational control of its troops to the U.S.
Seoul took back peacetime control in Dec. 1994 and was supposed to regain wartime command in April 2012, but the schedule was postponed to Dec. 2015 by the previous Lee Myung-bak administration.
Korea has prepared for wartime OPCON restoration with the help of the U.S. _ late last month, the former defense minister confirmed the timetable with his U.S. counterpart in a biannual meeting.
Beginning today, the joint military Key Resolve exercise will be headed by South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff for the first time, instead of the CFC, to provide a dry run for the handover of OPCON.
As the North keeps ratcheting up its bellicose behavior with a third nuclear test last month and threats of preemptive nuclear strikes this month, the numbers of those favoring a delay in the handover are growing, Seoul analysts said.