|Helicopters are parked inside the U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, Tuesday. According to sources, Korea and the U.S. will hold the joint military exercise from Aug. 16 to 28, after carrying out a preliminary Crisis Management Staff Training drill for four days from Tuesday. Yonhap|
By Jung Da-min
The government’s goal to accomplish the transition of wartime operational control (OPCON) of the Korean military from Washington to Seoul by 2022 may face a setback as this year’s joint military exercises with the United States will be scaled down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This means procedures necessary for the transition will not be carried out as planned.
To complete the transfer of wartime OPCON, the military had planned to use the drills in August to assess its full operational capability (FOC), the second step in a three-phase verification process for the transition. But the allies reportedly decided to exclude the FOC verification, as U.S. troops in charge of this process cannot come to Korea due to concerns over spreading the coronavirus.
The Korean language edition of Voice of America (VOA) reported Monday that FOC verification would be impossible, citing a U.S. official. “It will be impossible to conduct the assessment, known as a Full Operational Capability test, in large part because of the 14 day quarantine requirement for U.S. personnel coming to Korea, a U.S. official said,” William Gallo, the Seoul bureau chief for VOA, wrote on his Twitter.
According to Gallo, the official acknowledged that the failure to conduct the FOC would delay the OPCON transfer but added, “Any decision regarding OPCON transition will be an alliance decision and is based on bilaterally agreed to conditions and not a timeline.”
If the FOC test is delayed, the third phrase of verification ― full mission capability (FMC) which the government planned to carry out next year ― would also be postponed. This rescheduling could lead to a delay in the goal to retake wartime OPCON before President Moon Jae-in’s five-year term ends.
Following the VOA report, the Korean military said it closely consulting with its U.S. counterparts over ways to conduct the exercise.
According to sources, the two militaries will hold the joint exercise from Aug. 16 to 28, after carrying out a preliminary Crisis Management Staff Training (CMST) drill for four days from Tuesday.
Defense watchers said scaling down the summertime exercise was a foregone conclusion given the COVID-19 restrictions; and so FOC verification would be impossible as it requires a full formation of both Korean and U.S. troops.
In August last year, the allies conducted their first joint military exercise led by a Korean general for initial operational capability (IOC) verification, the first phrase of the transfer.
“Last year’s summertime joint drill focused on the IOC which assessed the process of completing the formation of the troops. The FOC verification, which was supposed to be conducted during this year’s drill, is about assessing the operation of the troops after formation,” said Shin Beom-chul, a director at the Korea Research Institute for the National Security Center for Diplomacy and Security.
“For the FOC verification, the United States Forces Korea (USFK) should be able to send a full complement of troops necessary for the task, but this was impossible amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, claimed the U.S. government was reluctant to conduct FOC verification, and such stance could be seen in USFK commander Gen. Robert Abrams’s July 1 lecture at a forum on the Korea-U.S. military alliance.
In the lecture, Abrams said the allies should resume theater-level combined post-command exercises as the springtime drills were postponed due to COVID-19, as these were essential to maintain military readiness.
“What Abrams was trying to say was that Korea and the U.S. should not push ahead with the FOC when they are not able to meet the basic conditions especially when joint exercises cannot be conducted as before amid the pandemic,” Park said.
Park also said other U.S. government officials don’t appear to favor the transfer of wartime OPCON when a conflict with China was mounting as they would want to retain influence on the Korean Peninsula to hold Beijing in check.
“In fact, it was U.S. President Donald Trump who supported the idea of the transfer of wartime OPCON, as he thought keeping it meant that the U.S. was taking the burden in terms of money and political responsibility. But it seems the Trump administration is losing control over the matter as there are other big issues it needs to focus.”