The newly released ROK 2022-2026 Midterm Defense Plan promises sharper swords and stronger shields following the termination of US missile guidelines earlier this year. It is a continued evolution of President Moon’s two-tier inter-Korean strategy of promoting dialogue while simultaneously expanding military capabilities. However, the heavy focus on developments within ISR, C41 and BMD (see below) reveals a larger agenda and one close at heart to the outgoing President Moon: the transition of wartime operational control (OPCON). While OPCON will not transition before Moon leaves office, the final midterm budget symbolizes the direction he believes South Korea should take; becoming an equal alliance partner with the US, a sovereign negotiator with indigenous capabilities vis-á-vis Pyongyang, and a responsible middle power actively engaged in regional security matters.
Taking Back Control
The OPCON has long been viewed as an issue of regaining national sovereignty in South Korea and featured as one of the main tenets in the Moon administration’s 2017 Defense Reform 2.0. While the ROK has been in charge of its armed forces in peacetime since 1994, wartime OPCON has remained under US leadership, originally through the United Nations Command (UNC) and from 1978 through the Combined Forces Command (CFC). The OPCON transition entails a change in the nationality of the CFC’s Commander General from a US to a ROK General, while maintaining US Forces Korea (USFK) presence on the Peninsula. The ROK CFC Commander would, like his US predecessor, continue under the direction of both ROK and US authorities. Originally approached on a timeline basis, the transition has since 2014 shifted to a conditions-based procedure that requires a regionally stable security environment and enhanced ROK capabilities that can deter North Korea. These critical capabilities are as follows: (1) Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); (2) Command, control, communication, computers, and intelligence (C41); (3) Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD); (4) Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD); and (5) Critical munitions (increased stockpiles). Joint US-ROK military exercises test the efficiency of the ROK’s ISR and C41, while indigenous BMD and WMD defense technologies are developed to partially replace some areas currently supported by US technology.
Reading OPCON in the Midterm plan
The annually prepared midterm plans contain financial investment plans for the development and maintenance of the ROK armed forces over the next five years. The new Midterm Defense Plan will allocate 315.2 trillion won ($262 billion), an annual average growth rate of 5.8 percent, and an increase of 14.3 trillion won from the previous year. Due to South Korea’s decreasing population size and the evolving security needs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the midterm plan continues pushing for a reform in military power from a “troop strength-intensive structure to a technology-intensive structure based on high-tech weapons”. Two areas, in particular, will see significant progress: the maritime domain through the development of an integrated force under water, on water, and air, and both defensive and offensive missile capabilities with increased destructive power.
The Plan aims at improving critical capabilities in the realm of ISR, C41, and BMD. It describes the development of a 24-hour monitoring system through the creation of a micro-satellite reconnaissance system and the utilization of spy satellites and high-and middle altitude unmanned aerial vehicles. Space-based threats are to be countered through the development of the Korean Positioning System, high-powered laser satellite tracking, radar space surveillance and the establishment of a dedicated Space Command. Missile interception capabilities will be improved through an update of the existing Patriot missile interceptors, the introduction of indigenous long and medium-range anti-ballistic weapons, and the development of a long-range artillery interceptor system. However, developments within the final two critical capabilities (countering WMDs and increased critical munitions stockpiles) remain uncertain largely due to their inherent secrecy.
If successful, the OPCON transition holds the potential to alter Seoul’s position towards Washington, Pyongyang, and the larger Asia Pacific region. With increased military capabilities and much-needed leverage in disarmament talks, the ROK may be able to avoid the DPRK’s current sidelining in favor of the US in terms of security dialogue. The KORUS Alliance could see improvements through a more balanced and equal relationship with less security burden on the US while simultaneously providing Seoul with more leeway to make independent decisions on regional security issues amid an intensifying US-China rivalry. The Midterm Plan’s promise of developments within the maritime domain and protecting maritime trading routes indicates a deeper understanding of the increasing importance of maritime power; it equally points towards a willingness to engage in regional security as a middle power beyond merely falling in line with US demands.
Many issues preventing a successful transition remain, such as the scaled-down or canceled joint military exercises and the looming elections, which may drastically change the ROK defense posture. The developments of the past few weeks, however, have introduced new challenges. If an end-of-war declaration is announced, the issue of possible changes to the role and responsibility of the UNC and its relations to USFK-CFC and ROKA is likely to gain momentum. An end-of-war declaration would likely be seen as a precursor to a future peace agreement, pushing the UNC members nations and the nations providing personnel to the NNSC (Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission) to begin discussions on resolving these issues. An end-of-war declaration may also open a discussion on the US’s presence on the Peninsula and its continued legitimization. Finally, with four North Korean missile tests conducted within a short time frame, it is paramount to accurately articulate what truly constitutes a stable security environment appropriate for OPCON to happen. Whatever the future holds, the 2022-2026 Midterm Plan shows that Seoul is serious about shouldering the responsibilities of a sovereign nation equipped with a technologically advanced military.