(LEAD) S. Korea, U.S. to decide timing of OPCON transfer next year
(ATTN: UPDATES with Kim's comments, more details in 9-11, 22-23 paras)
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Oct. 14 (Yonhap) -- Seoul and Washington have agreed to reset the timing of the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) next year after reviewing North Korean threat and the South Korean forces capabilities to deal with it, the defense ministry here said Monday.
The issue of the OPCON transfer to Seoul surfaced as the major issue in this year's parliamentary audit on the defense ministry, which in May proposed the U.S. government to reconsider the December 2015 deadline in light of the rising North Korean nuclear and missile threat.
In a bilateral defense summit earlier this month, the two nations agreed to form a task force team to discuss conditions for the right timing and draw a conclusion in the first half of next year, the defense ministry said in a report.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin stressed the importance of the allies' combined surveillance capabilities to detect movements by the North Korean military, pledging to bolster his military's own capabilities to deter the present danger and potential threat.
"The South Korea-U.S. combined forces are critical in making command decisions, while South Korean forces have enough strike capabilities," Kim said during the parliamentary defense meeting. "The South Korean forces are currently preparing to cope with the North Korean threat, while preparing for potential threat in the future. We will consider mid- and long-term measures to bolster capabilities against potential threat."
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin makes an oath before starting a parliamentary audit held at the defense ministry on Oct. 14, 2013. (Yonhap)
South Korea is scheduled to take over the wartime operational command of all troops on the peninsula in December 2015, a timeline that had already been pushed back from the previous deadline of 2012, but rising threat from the communist rival fueled concerns over the planned transition.
In light of the heightened tension with Pyongyang's near-daily war threats against South Korea and the U.S. for their joint military drills in spring, Kim said he suggested that President Park Geun-hye reconsider the timing of the planned transition.
Seoul's regaining of its wartime control has been a sensitive issue in the nation still technically at war with North Korea over concerns that it could send a wrong message to the communist rival, which seeks to advance its weapons program under its young leader Kim Jong-un.
Although Pyongyang has conducted two atomic tests in 2006 and 2009, Kim said the latest nuclear explosion poses a greater threat to national security as the North is considered to have made considerable progress in securing more powerful bombs with the results of the most recent blast.
"The meaning of the third nuclear test is different from the first and second tests," Kim said. "Considering the North's leadership change, (OPCON transfer) in 2015 is dangerous in terms of the national security."
When asked whether another postponement would hurt Seoul's credibility with its ally, Kim said his top priority is to have a strong defense capability and a decision concerning the appropriate timing of the transfer should take into consideration the changing security conditions on the peninsula.
Opposition party lawmakers criticized the government, saying it is being too dependent on the U.S., and called for the transition as scheduled.
"Too much reliance on alliance with the U.S. has drawn both light and shade," Rep. Jin Sung-joon of the Democratic Party said. "The South Korea-U.S. alliance provided deterrence against North Korea in the last 60 years, but it delayed South Korea's gaining its self-defense capabilities."
Another DP lawmaker, Baek Kun-gi, a former four-star Army general, denounced the move by the government, saying the postponement proposal is based on "political considerations" rather than actual "defense conditions."
Meanwhile, the protracted fighter jet project also took center stage during the parliamentary audit.
Last month, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) bowed to public pressure and voted down a bid by Boeing to supply 60 combat jets to restart the 8.3 trillion won (US$7.2 billion) fighter aircraft program.
Locked in competition with Lockheed Martin's F-35 stealth jet and EADS' Eurofighter, Boeing's F-15 Silent Eagle came close to winning the contract as it was the only jet that came within budget. But the state arms procurement agency decided to restart the project at the last minute to get a more advanced, radar-evading aircraft, further delaying the replacement of the aging fleet of F-4s and F-5s.
Seoul had initially required a potential contractor to deliver 60 jets for five years from 2017.
"While the defense ministry has been inconsistent over the need to adopt stealth jets, security vacuum in the air power has become unavoidable," Rep. Chung Hee-soo of the ruling Saenuri Party said. "After voting down the F-15 SE to get the stealth jet, (the South Korean government) will be placed in a very disadvantageous position when dealing with Lockheed Martin in the future."
DP lawmaker Kim Jin-pyo said the defense ministry's changing stance from putting priority on price conditions to stressing stealth capabilities shows its lack of consistent strategy in building the nation's air power.
"The government should apologize for hurting South Korea's international credibility and fueling doubt over its defense projects," Kim said.
The defense chief, who last month presided the DAPA meeting that rejected Boeing, said his government is reviewing past rounds of negotiations to push the project in a way that suits the nation's interest.
"I regret not having enough consultations with related agencies. The project could have gone wrong, but we turned it to the right direction," Kim said. "I apologize for causing (the government) to lose the public's trust."