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(3rd LD) S. Korea, U.S. to draft plan for future alliance command

2017/10/12 17:55

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(ATTN: UPDATES with details in paras 6-15; ADDS photo)

By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, Oct. 12 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean and U.S. militaries will soon formalize a plan to create a new combined command, which will become effective when Seoul regains its wartime operational control (OPCON) of the country's troops, the Ministry of National Defense said Thursday.

The allies plan to approve the scheme in their annual Military Committee Meeting (MCM) and Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) later this month, it told lawmakers.

The MCM is an annual session involving the chairmen of the allies' Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). This year's meeting will be held in Seoul on Oct. 27, a day before the ministerial SCM.

"(The two sides) will authorize the creation of the future command of combined forces during the MCM and the SCM," the ministry said in a report for a regular parliamentary audit of its affairs.

The allies will then draw up a specific scheme to establish a system to have a South Korean commander and a U.S. deputy commander, it added.

South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo speaks during the regular parliamentary audit of his ministry's affairs at the ministry building in Seoul on Oct. 12, 2017. (Yonhap) South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo speaks during the regular parliamentary audit of his ministry's affairs at the ministry building in Seoul on Oct. 12, 2017. (Yonhap)

The existing Combined Forces Command (CFC), formed in 1978 as the headquarters of joint military operations, is led by a four-star U.S. general. A four-star South Korean general serves as deputy commander.

Currently, U.S. Army Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), leads the CFC. He doubles as chief of the United Nations Command (UNC).

Even if the new format of a combined command is created, the USFK chief will continue to lead the UNC.

An OPCON transition would pave the way for the South's troops to play a leading role in fighting a war against the North, with the U.S. military assuming a supporting role.

Asked if the Donald Trump government is opposed to the OPCON transfer plan, Gen. Kim Byung-ju, deputy commander of the CFC, emphasized that it's an "agreed-upon matter."

   He added it's important to plug a possible loophole in the combined defense posture after the transition.

"Consultations are underway between South Korea and the U.S. on supplementing the system," he told lawmakers sitting on the National Assembly's national defense committee.

Gen. Kim Byung-ju, deputy commander of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, answers a question during lawmakers' audit of the defense ministry affairs on Oct. 12, 2017. (Yonhap) Gen. Kim Byung-ju, deputy commander of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, answers a question during lawmakers' audit of the defense ministry affairs on Oct. 12, 2017. (Yonhap)

But the U.S. is reportedly negative about the idea of a four-star general serving as a South Korean commander's deputy in the envisioned command. The Pentagon is expected to pick a three-star general for the position.

The left-leaning Moon Jae-in administration, which took office in May, has pushed for an early OPCON transfer.

It's considering a three-stage road map: laying the groundwork for strengthening the country's own defense capabilities, joint military drills organized by the future combined forces starting in 2019, and an actual OPCON transition in the early 2020s.

In a related program, the ministry said it will speed up the ongoing establishment of the "three-axis" defense platform against North Korea's nuclear arsenal and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) -- the Kill Chain pre-emptive strike system, the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) scheme.

The ministry is pushing for a new director general-level post specializing in handling the North Korea issue, such as the assessment of its WMD program, policy measures and inter-Korean military talks.

It will consider expanding the JCS' WMD response center to an organization, tentatively named Strategic Command, in connection with the OPCON transition plan.

South Korea handed over its OPCON to the U.S.-led U.N. forces during the 1950-53 Korean War.

South Korea was supposed to regain its wartime OPCON at the end of 2015. But the transfer was postponed indefinitely as the allies agreed to seek a "conditions-based" shift, instead of setting a deadline, amid growing North Korean military threats.

Meanwhile, a lawmaker demanded the National Assembly audit the CFC on a regular basis like the defense ministry and other defense authorities here.

Rep. Kim Joong-ro of the minor opposition People's Party argued that the CFC, located in Seoul, has effectively stayed in a "gray area" when it comes to the monitoring and watching of its operation and budget use.

Although the allies' command is bankrolled partially by South Korea, it provides regular reports of military-related information only to the U.S. Congress, not South Korea's legislature, he pointed out.

He stressed the need for the CFC to reveal such information to South Korean people transparently through a parliamentary audit.

"If the CFC is included in organizations subject to the audit, we can protect the people's right to know and prevent its potential corruption and unilateral operations," he said, adding that he plans to submit a related bill in the near future.

Many observers are skeptical that it will pass the National Assembly. Chances are slim that the U.S. will approve the audit plan, and there's concern about various adverse effects from the disclosure of the CFC's classified information via lawmakers here.

lcd@yna.co.kr

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