Setting the Record Straight on OPCON Transition in the U.S.-ROK Alliance
The United States and the Republic of Korea have been pursuing a strategic transformation of their security alliance for almost two decades. Shawn P. Creamer argues that the label OPCON transition no longer appropriately describes the transformative venture and discusses the benefits of pursuing strategic transformation under a different name.
The United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have been pursuing a strategic transformation of their security alliance for almost two decades. Since inception, the effort has evolved under many different names. One of the most widely used labels for this undertaking has been operational control (OPCON) transition. However, the use of this term has grown increasingly problematic. Quite simply, OPCON transition no longer appropriately describes the transformative venture being pursued by the two long-standing allies. This commentary will describe the reasons why and discuss the benefits of pursuing strategic transformation under a different name.
THE NEED FOR A PARADIGM SHIFT
OPCON transition is an expression used to convey the ROK’s aspiration to assume and exercise unilateral control over its armed forces in wartime. OPCON transition is considered by many within the ROK government as a very big step by the country toward becoming militarily powerful enough to one day assume full responsibility for its own national defense. Some pundits speculate incorrectly that the United States’ motive for strategic transformation is to engineer a situation whereby U.S. forces can depart from the Korean Peninsula and set the conditions for the United States to walk away from the security alliance. The fact of the matter is that the effort to strategically transform the alliance is forward looking, an aggressive move by both allies to adapt their relationship to future realities.
The fundamental problem of connecting OPCON transition with the alliance’s strategic transformation effort is that the term misdirects officials and the public from what this process is really about. The alliance’s strategic transformation involves a paradigm shift far beyond adjustments to the combined defense structure.
The fundamental problem of connecting OPCON transition with the alliance’s strategic transformation effort is that the term misdirects officials and the public from what this process is really about. The alliance’s strategic transformation involves a paradigm shift far beyond adjustments to the combined defense structure. It is focused on taking a major leap forward toward ROK national self-defense by measurably improving the quality and scope of the ROK’s contributions to the combined defense through a well-balanced program of acquisitions, fielding, organization, and training.
The above statements are not intended to minimize in any way just how significant it is for both the ROK and the alliance to have a South Korean general officer in a command role over alliance forces. Yet while the reversal in which nation provides the alliance commander is noteworthy, this aspect of strategic transformation is of secondary importance. The goal of strategic transformation was born out of the mutual recognition that the strategic environment had changed, both in terms of South Korea’s place in the world and in how the regional balance of power was evolving in the Indo-Pacific. Washington and Seoul concurred that the bulk of the combined defense of the Korean Peninsula must come from the ROK itself and that the country should maintain robust capabilities in all domains, moving beyond the days when it primarily contributed land forces.
Moreover, the planned acquisition, fielding, organization, and training improvements would empower the ROK to defend itself in all domains, allowing the country to play a middle-power role within the region, both by itself and in conjunction with other partners, including the United States. However, strategic transformation also would provide a much-needed hedge against a most dangerous situation where the United States, as a great power with global obligations, might one day become heavily engaged in simultaneous conflicts. If such a situation were to arise, the United States might be unable to bring the full weight of its military to the combined defense should peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula or in the region be threatened.
STRATEGIC PLANNING FOR OPCON TRANSITION
From 2002 through 2007, the ROK and U.S. governments studied numerous combined defense arrangements to achieve the ROK government’s political goal of OPCON transition, while at the same time meeting the unique security and defense needs of the alliance. Under both the Strategic Transition Plan (STP) developed during 2007–10 and the Strategic Alliance 2015 (SA2015), the ROK Armed Forces would significantly increase their involvement and roles in the alliance defense. One major aspect of both plans that is often overlooked was the significant improvements to secure the ROK’s capability to lead alliance operations. However, even under STP and the later SA2015 effort, some ROK and U.S. forces would continue combined operations at the component and task-force levels, while the majority of both national forces would fight separately under national unified commands in a parallel command construct. Moreover, both plans retained the existing bilateral consultative and decision-making body, the Military Committee, which would continue serving as the alliance clearing house for strategic guidance and direction to the respective national forces.
OPCON transition became a full-fledged false narrative after 2015 when the ROK and U.S. governments shifted away from the parallel command experiment and returned to the proven integrated Combined Forces Command (CFC) model under the inappropriately named Conditions-based Operational Control Transition Plan (COTP). The COTP effort involves far more than just changing the alliance commander from an American to a Korean-appointed general officer. Rather, COTP is focused on strengthening the alliance’s combined defense capabilities through the acquisition of ROK military capabilities to enable the ROK Armed Forces to exercise more leadership and expanded their roles in the alliance defense. While the basic alliance combined defense framework is retained under COTP, the plan does expand on the earlier STP and SA2015 efforts to build in significant force improvements for the ROK Armed Forces, in conjunction with South Korea’s own military modernization goals. U.S. military modernization and persistent challenges with implementing ROK military modernization plans resulted in an increased focus on generating improved ROK military capabilities as part of the alliance’s transformation plans.
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT OPCON TRANSITION
OPCON transition is no longer appropriate to describe the strategic transformation of the alliance because the term itself is founded on two false premises. The first is that the ROK Armed Forces would be under U.S. OPCON if a war were to occur under the current CFC framework. The second is that under the new arrangement the ROK government would exercise unilateral control over its forces in wartime. These premises overlook the following features of the alliance framework and how OPCON is exercised within alliances.
First, South Korea has maintained sovereign command authority over its armed forces since its founding on August 15, 1948. The government, or entities within, have exercised command authority over select ROK field forces to perform unsanctioned operational missions while they were ostensibly under the OPCON of the UN Command or the CFC at multiple points over the last 70 years.
Second, since 1994, the alliance’s warfighting command—the CFC—has had no forces assigned during peacetime, except for the command’s headquarters and component command headquarters staffing. U.S. forces in South Korea have been under U.S. unilateral command and control, while the ROK Armed Forces have been under the unilateral command and control of the ROK government.
Third, since 1978, if the armistice were to fail and hostilities resume on the Korean Peninsula, U.S. field commands forward-stationed in South Korea, U.S. reinforcement forces from off the peninsula, and the majority of field commands in the ROK Armed Forces would operate under a form of bilateral control under the CFC. Though the term OPCON is used routinely to describe this control arrangement, multinational OPCON arrangements can differ significantly from those exercised unilaterally due to the influences of command authority and national caveats exercised by the providing governments.
Fourth, in accordance with the ROK-U.S. Terms of Reference agreement, the U.S. government appoints the CFC commander, while the ROK government appoints the deputy commander.
Fifth, the Military Committee is the conduit for all strategic guidance and direction to the CFC leadership. Neither the ROK nor the U.S. government has the authority to circumvent the Military Committee. All three evolutions of the strategic transformation (STP, SA2015, and COTP) have retained this proven construct for strategic guidance and direction to alliance forces.
Last, COTP is the current bilaterally negotiated program driving the alliance’s strategic transformation. It retains the core foundations of the above CFC and Military Committee construct. In addition to reversing the nationality of the commander and deputy commander, COTP also directs the ROK’s acquisition of many capabilities prior to the transition that the two countries agreed were critical to increased leadership in the combined defense.
Given these considerations, the use of the term OPCON transition is inappropriate because there is no transfer of OPCON occurring or scheduled to occur during wartime other than what is already occurring today under the current CFC and alliance framework. Yet the term continues to be used by both ROK and U.S. officials. Much of the confusion arises due to the misconception that the nationality of the alliance’s commander equates to unilateral national control. By this logic, the U.S. government’s appointment of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe means that the United States has control over NATO forces in wartime. NATO has similar rules in place as the U.S.-ROK alliance. It is highly doubtful, however, that Germany, Italy, or the Netherlands sees OPCON lines as flowing through the U.S. government.
Despite the ROK and U.S. transition to a bilateral security relationship in 1978, the relationship itself remains conceptually locked in the historical legacies of the pre-1978 patron-client framework. Viewed from this perspective, OPCON transition appears to run up against the institutional limits of the U.S.-ROK alliance. On the one side, some ROK officials conceive of the transition as overcoming their country’s historical dependence on the United States while also breaking free of U.S. constraints on freedom of action. Those who hold this view perceive the current CFC commanded by a U.S. general as a hindrance rather than as a crucial institution that has preserved and defended the ROK’s national security.
On the other side, U.S. officials view the transition with skepticism insofar as historically the United States has maintained a degree of relative control over the security environment in South Korea and has been very cautious about engaging in a major campaign on the peninsula. Put more bluntly, for many U.S. officials the transition to a future-oriented CFC would place control of U.S. forces under a South Korean commander. This is difficult for them to fathom, even if the organizational structure of the CFC and the existing bilateral consultative mechanisms within it would not actually change.
THE BENEFITS OF STRATEGIC TRANSFORMATION
Both sides thus misconstrue the transition as something that is contrary to rather than consonant with their core interests. Such misunderstandings prevent officials from seeing the benefits of further alliance transformation. Not only would the ROK adopt a more independent defense posture; it also would take on a greater burden in the process, both on the Korean Peninsula and regionally. For the ROK to properly take the lead on the peninsula, the allies would need to deepen consultation regarding third-party contingencies (beyond a potential conflict with North Korea), and the ROK would need to more clearly support U.S. treaty responsibilities to other allies, particularly Japan. This could result in greater trilateral cooperation. Although at times the ROK appears to discount the strategic implications and collective security responsibilities that come with the alliance’s strategic transformation, moving forward with the process is the only way for South Korea and the alliance to transform in that direction.
Resolving the issue of inaccurate labels and reducing confusion on what strategic transformation will achieve might allow the two allies to dedicate more organizational energy to accomplishing the important goals contained within the current plan.
Time will tell if the two allies can work through their problems and transform their security relationship to address current and future realities. A good start might be to cease using OPCON transition as a label to describe the effort, followed by the formal renaming of COTP with a more appropriate term. Resolving the issue of inaccurate labels and reducing confusion on what strategic transformation will achieve might allow the two allies to dedicate more organizational energy to accomplishing the important goals contained within the current plan. Strategic transformation, as currently codified, significantly advances the alliance relationship by moving the ROK much closer toward achieving national self-defense, while at the same time realizing U.S. goals for allies and partners to actively contribute militarily to the collective self-defense of the free world. Once this phase of strategic transformation is completed, the two allies should forge ahead toward the mutual goal of an ROK that is self-sufficient militarily, a U.S. ally, and a major contributor to regional peace and stability.
Shawn P. Creamer is an active duty U.S. Army colonel. He was commissioned through the ROTC as an infantry officer in 1995 when he graduated from the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. He has served in a wide variety of command and staff assignments over the course of his 26-year career, which includes eleven years assigned to the ROK or working on Korean Peninsula security issues. He was a U.S. Army War College Fellow in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program and is a fellow with the Institute for Corean-American Studies.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
 Office of National Security of the Republic of Korea (ROK), ROK National Security Strategy (Seoul, 2018), 32–33; and Ministry of National Defense (ROK), 2014 Defense White Paper (Seoul, 2014), 42. It is important to note that “assuming full responsibility” or “future-oriented and autonomous defense capabilities” does not mean that the ROK is seeking a future without allies. Rather, it means that the ROK is able to defend its sovereignty and national interests without or with limited support by an outside power.
 Ministry of National Defense (ROK), The History of the ROK-U.S. Alliance (Seoul, 2014), 298–305.
 Ministry of National Defense (ROK), 2008 Defense White Paper (Seoul, 2008), 84–85; Ministry of National Defense (ROK), 2014 Defense White Paper (Seoul, 2014), 123–27; and Ministry of National Defense (ROK), The History of the ROK-US Alliance, 280–89.
 Ministry of National Defense (ROK), The History of the ROK-U.S. Alliance, 288; Ministry of National Defense (ROK), 2014 Defense White Paper, 126; and Ministry of National Defense (ROK), 2016 Defense White Paper (Seoul, 2016), 151.
 Ministry of National Defense (ROK), The History of the ROK-U.S. Alliance, 284–85.
 Ministry of National Defense (ROK), 2018 Defense White Paper (Seoul, 2018), 48–51, 182, 185.
 Bruce W. Bennett, “The Korean Defense Reform 307 Plan,” Asan Institute for Policy Studies, April 18, 2011, http://en.asaninst.org/contents/issue-brief-no-8-the-korean-defense-reform-307-plan-by-bruce-w-bennett-the-rand-corporation1.
 Command authority is a nation’s lawful, sovereign exercise of authority over its armed forces.
 Shawn P. Creamer, “Theater-Level Command and Alliance Decision-Making Architecture in South Korea,” International Journal of Korean Studies, no. 20 (2016): 48; and Ministry of National Defense (ROK), The History of the ROK-U.S. Alliance, 277–80.
 Shawn P. Creamer, “Joint and Multinational Theater Headquarters in Korea: History, Organization and Manpower Activities,” Institute for Corean-American Studies, January 6, 2020, 12–13, 47, 58.
 Creamer, “Theater-Level Command and Alliance Decision-Making,” 48–49; Ministry of National Defense (ROK), 2016 Defense White Paper, 150; and Ministry of National Defense (ROK), The History of the ROK-U.S. Alliance, 170–74.
 U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Multinational Operations, Joint Publication 3-16 (Washington, D.C., 2021), I-2, II-1–II-2.
 Ministry of National Defense (ROK), The History of the ROK-U.S. Alliance, 168; and Creamer, “Theater-Level Command and Alliance Decision-Making,” 49.
 Creamer, “Theater-Level Command and Alliance Decision-Making,” 49–52.
 Ministry of National Defense (ROK), 2008 Defense White Paper, 87–90; Ministry of National Defense, 2014 Defense White Paper, 123–27; Ministry of National Defense (ROK), 2018 Defense White Paper, 184; and Ministry of National Defense (ROK), The History of the ROK-U.S. Alliance, 280–89.
 Ministry of National Defense (ROK), 2018 Defense White Paper, 184; “Joint Communique of 50th U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meeting,” U.S. Forces Korea, Press Release, October 31, 2018, https://www.usfk.mil/Media/News/Article/1679753/joint-communique-of-50th-us-rok-security-consultative-meeting; and Clint Work “The Long History of South Korea’s OPCON Debate,” Diplomat, November 1, 2017.
 White House, Interim National Security Strategy Guidance (Washington, D.C., 2021), 6, 8, 10, 19–20.