SEOUL, May 8 (Yonhap) -- Leaders of South Korea and the United States have reaffirmed their pledge to work to transfer wartime operational control of allied forces to Seoul as planned and enhance their joint capability to deter North Korea aggression during their summit, Seoul officials said Wednesday.
Since taking office in February, South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday held her first summit talk with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, and adopted a joint declaration that commemorates the 60th anniversary of the alliance forged during the 1950-53 Korean War and charts a new course for a bilateral relationship.
Among major issues included in the declaration was the 2015 transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of allied forces to Seoul. Currently, the South Korean military remains in command under normal armistice circumstances, but Gen. James Thurman, as the commander of U.S. Forces Korea and United Nations forces, would assume operational control in case of war.
While a 2007 agreement for OPCON transfer remains a lightning rod of controversy, the two leaders reaffirmed their pledge to continue the preparations and strengthen defense capabilities against the communist nation.
Obama said the two nations agreed to continue modernizing the security alliance to be fully prepared for any security threat.
"We're investing in the shared capabilities and technologies, and missile defenses that allow our forces to operate and succeed together," Obama said during a joint conference at the White House. "We are on track for South Korea to assume operational control for the alliance in 2015."
Park also said the takeover of wartime operational control should proceed in a way that strengthens combined defense capabilities and preparations being made toward that way as well, without mentioning the 2015 deadline.
Transferring operational command requires Seoul to implement a series of improvements to South Korean military forces.
Although the official transfer of command doesn't occur until December 2015, conservatives and retired generals have increasingly called for its postponement until the South Korean military is better prepared to assume the additional responsibilities in light of growing threats posed by the communist nation.
The issue has resurfaced as inter-Korean tensions have reached the danger level this year after Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened nuclear strikes against the South and the U.S. in response to their joint drills, following its third nuclear test in February and launch of a long-range rocket last December.
Militaries of the two nations have been working to make an alternative body to replace the Combined Forces Command, which is to be dissolved after the transfer.
Under the new integrated structure, the South Korean military will play a leading role, and American forces will offer support during a potential wartime situation, fighting side by side with their Korean allies.
In response to growing concerns, Washington pledged unwavering commitment to defend South Korea, with conventional and nuclear weapons, and intelligence assets, ever after the OPCON transfer.
A South Korean defense ministry official said it is not the right time to talk about a further delay of the implementation as the transfer mechanism agreed upon by both militaries already includes an integrated assessment and certification process to ensure South Korean security is not jeopardized.
"Military officials of the two nations are working to beef up defense capabilities and maintain the strong alliance even after Seoul takes back its wartime operational control," the official spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The two nations will conduct three assessments before the transfer to supplement perceived shortcomings in the South's ability to defend itself."
Seoul and Washington will assess the South Korean military's operating capability during annual joint drills in March and August next year, and review its progress in implementing the necessary defense programs during the 2015 summer training prior before fully implementing the agreement later that year.