SEOUL — South Korea has asked to postpone a change that would give Seoul control of its own troops during a war, rather than place them under U.S. command, South Korea’s semiofficial Yonhap News Agency said Wednesday, citing a top U.S. government official.
The reported request, coming on the heels of delays, underscores South Korea’s ambivalence about how it would handle a potential war with the rival North and whether its military is capable of operating independently of Washington.
Under the current arrangement, a legacy of the Korean War, the United States would command not only its own troops amid fighting on the Korean Peninsula but also those of the South.
The transfer of operational wartime control from Washington to Seoul would mark the greatest power shift in a six-decade alliance. When the South first pushed for the transfer seven years ago, government officials here described it as an affirmation of the South’s sovereignty and its rapid modernization.
But the transfer — originally planned for 2012 and then pushed to December 2015 — has since drawn occasional criticism from conservative analysts in Seoul and Washington, who say deterrence against North Korea will suffer if the militarily superior United States takes a back seat. Earlier this year, a former U.S. commander in Korea, retired Gen. B.B. Bell, said the United States should “permanently postpone” the deal in light of the North’s nuclear weapons capability.
The Yonhap report was attributed to an unidentified top U.S. government official and confirmed by a senior South Korean official.
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense did not confirm the report but said in a statement that Seoul had proposed Washington take into account “North Korea’s heightened nuclear problem” as the two sides discuss the handoff. The statement added that the transfer will be “continuously discussed” by the two governments.
In its statement, U.S. Forces Korea said “no formal proposal” has been made to adjust the so-called OpCon plan. A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Jeff Pool, said both sides believed that certain conditions had to be met before the transition. But the allies “continue to work to meet” the 2015 milestone, he said.
When the transfer occurs, the 28,500 U.S. troops here will not fall under the command of the South during war. Rather, the United States and South Korea will have separate commands.
South Korea gained control in 1994 of its troops during peacetime. But analysts and U.S. officials say the South needs to improve some of its capabilities — its intelligence systems, transport planes, amphibious vessels — before the wartime transfer.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done,” Joseph Yun, the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told a congressional committee in May.
Yoonjung Seo in Seoul and Ernesto Londoño in Washington contributed to this report.