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Analysis: Seoul Seeks Smaller U.S. Role

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld receives applause as he arrives on stage for a town hall meeting with troops at Yongsan Garrison 21 October 2005 in Seoul. Rumsfeld is in town for the annual security talks with South Korea. AFP photo/POOL/Mandel Ngan.

Seoul (UPI) Oct 21, 2005
South Korea failed to win an immediate promise from the United States on Friday to transfer its wartime operational control of South Korean troops back to Seoul.

Defense ministers from the two allies just agreed to "appropriately accelerate" talks on Seoul's wish to regain the full operational control of its own troops from the United States.

South Korea voluntarily put the operational control of its forces under the U.S.-led U.N. command that rescued the country in the 1950-53 war with China-backed North Korea.

South Korea got back the peacetime operational control of its forces from the United States in 1994, but its wartime operational control still remains in the hands of a four-star U.S. army general who concurrently heads the U.S. Forces Korea, the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command and the U.N. Command under a mutual defense treaty in 1953.

Seoul's government recently sought to take back the full operational control of its troops from the United States, saying it is bolstering the country's national defense capability while reducing its dependence on U.S. troops. The move is part of President Roh Moo-hyun's efforts to develop his country's defenses independent of the United States within 10 years.

South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung hoped to use Friday's Security Consultative Meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to win his promise to return the wartime operational control of South Korean troops to South Korea.

The sides "agreed to appropriately accelerate discussions on command relations and wartime operational control," said a joint statement released at the end of the defense ministers' talks.

South Korean defense officials said the agreement paved the way for the military- control right transfer.

"We expect the two sides would launch working-level talks in the near future to discuss the matter," an official said.

The U.S. military has returned several key security missions, such as patrolling the heavily fortified border, to allow South Korea to take a greater role in its national defense.

"Secretary Rumsfeld recognized the successful implementation of mission transfers and combined military capability enhancement plans based on the close consultation between the two countries, and assessed with satisfaction that the ROK (South Korea) is assuming an increased role in its national defense," the statement said.

But officials and analysts say it will take a long time to reach an agreement on the proposed military-right transfer.

Seoul's presidential National Security Council issued a statement earlier this year expressing its opposition to the U.S. military gaining wartime command of South Korean troops in the case of contingency situations in North Korea.

South Korea regards itself as responsible for control of wartime military operations in the North in the case of contingencies, as its Constitution states the entire Korean peninsula is designated as the South's territory.

In his Armed Forces Day address this month, Roh reaffirmed the position saying the South Korean forces would be developed into a "self-reliance military that has its own operational control."

The United States, however, considers North Korea a sovereign state and maintains U.S. forces can take action in the event of emergency situations in the reclusive communist state.

In Friday's talks, Seoul agreed to recognize the importance of "strategic flexibility" of U.S. troops in South Korea. It was a departure from Seoul's earlier position. Roh has long said he would not allow U.S. troops stationed in the country to get involved in East Asian disputes that can hurt stability on the peninsula.

Both sides "reaffirmed the continuing importance of the strategic flexibility of U.S. forces in the ROK and pledged to continue discussions on the issue based on the spirit of the alliance," said the 13-point joint statement.

Washington plans to reshape U.S. troops in South Korea as "rapid deployment forces" to interfere in military conflicts in Northeast Asia, under the posture of "strategic flexibility."

Under the plan, the United States would slash one third of its 37,500 troop level by 2008. It now has 32,500 troops in South Korea after withdrawing about 5,000 soldiers last year.

"Our government position is that we oppose South Korea being used as a U.S. military base in the event of a regional dispute," Defense Ministry spokesman Shin Hyun-don said. "But without that possibility, we can't oppose the U.S. 'strategic flexibility' itself because they are their troops," he said.

Rumsfeld's three-day visit comes as the six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program are set to resume in Beijing in early November. The U.S. defense chief hailed North Korea's promise last month to abandon its nuclear programs, but called for verifiable progress to end the standoff.

"Both sides noted that North Korea's continued development of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, along with the danger of proliferation of those weapons and technologies, are causes of significant concern," the joint statement said.

Rumsfeld's trip here is part of his five-nation Asian tour which took him to China, but will also take him to Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Lithuania.

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