Seoul (AFP) Oct 21, 2005
The United States and South Korea agreed on Friday to accelerate talks on switching the command structure of Korean forces in wartime in what would be a major shift in the half-century-old alliance.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reaffirmed the US commitment to South Korea's defense and to the provision of a nuclear umbrella to deter aggression from North Korea. But Rumsfeld, at the close of annual security talks with his South Korean counterpart Yoon Kwang-Ung, said that the alliance was evolving.
"And as the capability of the ROK (Republic of Korea forces) grow, they will assume more and more responsibility as they have been doing in previous years," he told a press conference.
"Over time, clearly there will be adjustments in the command relationships."
Under the existing mutual defense pact, South Korean forces come under the command of a US general in times of war.
President Roh Moo-Hyun, who also met with Rumsfeld, suggested last month that command be shifted to South Korea in wartime as well as in time of peace. Rumsfeld said there was no timetable for the shift of command.
"It will take place at that moment that the Republic of Korea and the United States decided it was appropriate," he said.
Senior US defense officials said the United States was open to South Korean ideas about changes in the alliance command structure but wanted it channeled through regular consultations, rather than have them raised in public statements.
The proposal comes as the United States is in the process of reducing its forces on the Korean peninsula from 37,000 troops to 25,000 by 2008 and withdrawing them from the frontline with North Korea to bases south of Seoul.
The United States also wants "the strategic flexibility" to deploy its remaining forces elsewhere in times of need.
At the press conference with Yoon, Rumsfeld said the United States was not planning to further reduce US force levels on the peninsula, although he said the military routinely planned for all contingencies.
A senior defense official said the next phase of discussions on the future of the alliance might involve further reductions in US troops.
"It depends on how they (the South Koreans) are moving toward self-reliance," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
"We think there is a common interest that whatever is done in the next phase is ... done in a stable context and doesn't create uncertainty about the security of the peninsula," he said.
"We don't know yet what would be the implication for our troop presence, There might be an implication," he said.
One reason to carefully think through any changes was to avoid having them misread as a weakening of US commitment to the region at a time when China is rising as a power, the officials said.
Prior to the meeting, General Leon LaPorte, the commander of US forces in South Korea, said that the threat from North Korea remained unchanged.
But he acknowledged that incidents along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) dividing the peninsula were down noticeably in the past 12-18 months.
He attributed the reduced tension in part to South Korea's "sunshine policy" which seeks reconciliation and cooperation with the North.
However a joint statement issued after Friday's meeting said the North remained a danger.
"North Korea's continued development of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles along with a danger of proliferation of those weapons and technologies are causes of significant concern for the ROK-US alliance and the international community," it said.
Responding to that danger, Rumsfeld said US forces would "preserve and strengthen the credibility of the deterrent against either overt aggression or nuclear blackmail."
The US-South Korea alliance which dates back to the 1950-53 Korean war has been strained in recent years over issues including differences in the handling of North Korea.
Rumsfeld, who arrived here from China on Thursday, leaves on Saturday for Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Lithuania.
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