28 September, 2017
South Korean President Moon Jae-in says his government is increasing efforts to take back wartime operational control of its military.
Wartime operational control, known as OPCON, describes the U.S.-led command of South Korean military forces in time of war.
The effort comes at a time when tensions between North Korea and the U.S. are very high.
Moon spoke about the issue at an event marking South Korea's 69th Armed Forces Day [on] Thursday. He said increasing military abilities and reducing dependence on U.S. military power would strengthen the country's position with the North.
"When the South has wartime operational control, the North will fear us more, and our armed forces will be trusted more," Moon said.
Robert Kelly is a professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea. He thinks such a move might be a way to show independence from the threats exchanged by the U.S. and North Korea.
"I think this might be a way for Moon to separate himself somewhat from the behavior of (U.S. President) Donald Trump in the last month," Kelly said.
Peacetime control moved to South Korea
The South Korean government took over peacetime command of its military personnel when the country transitioned to democracy.
The South Korean military works closely with the Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command, led by the U.S. General Vincent Brooks. Brooks also commands more than 28,000 U.S. military forces in Korea.
In wartime, the U.S. commander would take control of South Korean forces. The transfer, however, is not automatic. The South Korean president must first agree to hand over control.
Daniel Pinkston is a security expert with Troy University in Seoul. He said, "In a way, President Moon has control and he has a veto over giving control to the U.S. and giving control to the combined forces command."
South Koreans have different views on control
Moon and some members of his Democratic Party have supported gaining wartime operational control as an issue of sovereignty. It has also been linked to anti-American feelings in the country.
Conservatives have opposed taking over wartime control. They are concerned that such a move might weaken the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea.
Hong Jun-pyo is the leader of the Liberty Korea Party. He recently said that "return of OPCON is basically disbanding the Korea-U.S. military alliance."
Some also have concerns that such a move would be seen as a sign of disagreement between South Korea and the U.S. Kelly said that is "what the North Koreans have wanted for a long time."
Wartime operational control was to be handed over to South Korea in 2015. But the government of then-president Park Geun-hye and the U.S. decided in 2014 to postpone the transfer to 2020 or later. The deal now depends on South Korea gaining necessary operational abilities.
Some experts consider basing the decision on South Korea's capabilities good for the U.S.-South Korea alliance. They say it puts more responsibility on South Korea for its own defense.
Pinkston said that, without discussions about a transfer of OPCON, South Korea would have no reason to increase its defense capabilities.
"South Korea will think we don't have to worry about it because the U.S. will always have OPCON, they will always take care of us, so why should we spend more on our defense budget?" Pinkston said.
Moon's statements on Thursday appears to be part of that effort. He is promising reforms, including creating a more professional military and increasing national defense spending.
Some of that spending could be directed to developing new systems, such as South Korea's own missile defense system.
The country may also seek to launch five military satellites with surveillance and reconnaissance abilities.
I'm Mario Ritter.
Brian Padden reported this story for VOA News with contributions from Youmi Kim. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
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Words in This Story
personnel –n. people who work for a company, organization or government
automatic –adj. happening without being directed
sovereignty –n. the ability of a country or area to rule itself
disband –v. to end an organization or group
capabilities –n. the ability to do or carry out some kind of activity
surveillance –n. to carefully watch a person, group or area
reconnaissance –n. efforts by a military to gain information about opposing forces