Seoul's Push to Regain Wartime Control From U.S. Divides South Koreans

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By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

SEOUL -- At a packed news conference last week, a formidable coalition of retired South Korean military officers and former defense ministers issued a dire warning. They declared the half-century-old military alliance between South Korea and the United States in danger of falling apart, resting the blame squarely at the feet of President Roh Moo Hyun.

They pointed to Roh's determination -- expressed in comments to the local press earlier this month -- to regain wartime command of South Korea's military as early as possible. South Korea ceded that authority to the United States during the Korean War, and has since vested such power in a series of American generals who have headed the joint command here.

The system, in part, has ensured the intervention of U.S. troops still stationed in the South in the event that communist North Korea launches another invasion. But with a wave of ethnic Korean nationalism sweeping over the South, and with the North now viewed in kinder terms here, Roh has fostered public support for doing away with that system. He has called reclaiming full command from the United States the "core of a self-reliant national defense," adding that South Koreans who believed their military wasn't yet up to the task lacked "self-respect."

Roh's populist rhetoric aside, what has really scared the gaggle of retired generals are indications that the Pentagon may be just as eager to see the switch. The transfer of wartime command had been envisioned for sometime around 2012, but an earlier transfer, some U.S. officials now argue, would let the Pentagon focus more on the current crises in the Middle East and allow more administrative cuts in South Korea.

On Sunday, South Korean officials said U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had proposed that South Korea assume wartime command of its troops from the United States as early as 2009.

U.S. officials have said any agreement would be unrelated to South Korea's new political landscape and instead reflect the country's vastly improved military preparedness. But the developments nevertheless have left the impression among many pro-American South Koreans that Washington has simply grown tired of Seoul's embrace of the belligerent North, as well as the deep-seated anti-Americanism within some circles of South Korea's ruling Uri Party.

Some are hoping that Roh's visit to Washington next month for talks with President Bush may help smooth over cracks in the alliance. But most observers believe the mounting friction is unlikely to change before 2008, when Roh will leave office and U.S. voters will choose Bush's successor.

"President Roh is effectively saying that South Korea really doesn't need America the way we have all these years, and I can't blame the Americans for saying, 'Fine, have it your way,' " said Song Young Sun, a legislator with the opposition Grand National Party. "He wants to move South Korea away from the United States and closer to North Korea. And what we are saying is that this is just not a safe or smart thing to do."

It has fanned a be-careful-what-you-wish-for mentality among some South Koreans, who now fear that their national security may be put in jeopardy if the transfer of wartime command comes too soon. Although such a deal is likely to yield only a small new reduction of U.S. troops stationed here, opponents say it would loosen the strings that bind the U.S.-South Korean alliance and could even pave the way for an eventual American pullout.

It was only 12 years ago that the United States relinquished peacetime troop command. And the U.S. military is already scheduled to reduce its troop levels from about 30,000 to 25,000 by 2008.

The most important issue dividing Seoul and Washington these days is how to handle North Korea -- a nation analysts say could now harbor as many as half a dozen nuclear devices. For the past 10 months, Pyongyang has refused to return to six-party talks aimed at its nuclear disarmament.

The Bush administration has sought to pressure North Koreans back to negotiations, cracking down on Pyongyang's suspected counterfeiting and money-laundering operations by persuading international financial institutions not to do business with the country.

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