S. Koreans Rally in Support Of Alliance

By Jin Man Lee
Associated Press
Saturday, August 12, 2006

SEOUL, Aug. 11 -- Thousands of South Koreans, including former defense ministers wearing their old military uniforms, rallied Friday in Seoul demanding that the president halt moves to retake wartime command of the country's military from the United States.

"Stop the plot to destroy the Korea-U.S. alliance!" protesters chanted during a rally in front of the city's central train station.

Over their heads flew balloons strung with placards bearing the images of the South Korean and U.S. flags side-by-side.

Police said about 5,000 people, many of them elderly veterans, turned out for the demonstration, which underlined the worsening divide in South Korean society over the government's push for the return of wartime command.

South Korea transferred control of its forces in 1950 to a U.S.-led U.N. command that helped the country repel invading communists from North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War. Although peacetime control of the military was given to the South in 1994, the United States would take control of the South's military if war broke out on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korea and the United States have been in talks on the issue since the government in Seoul formally proposed taking over the command last year.

The two sides are expected to draw a road map for the proposed transfer when their defense chiefs hold annual talks in October in Washington.

The issue has recently become a hot topic in security-sensitive South Korea -- which faces the communist North across the world's most heavily fortified border -- as critics stepped up their campaign against the government's move.

Among those speaking publicly against the plan have been many of the country's former defense ministers, who argue that the command transfer is premature and would unravel the country's alliance with Washington and undercut deterrence against North Korea.

"I oppose taking over the operational command. It's premature," Lee Sang Hoon, defense minister from 1988 to 1990, said at Friday's rally.

President Roh Moo Hyun rejected the criticism this week, saying that the South's military is strong enough to take over the command anytime and that leaving it with the United States is a slight to national sovereignty. His blunt rebuff further fueled the debate.

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