General Expects More N. Korea Nuke Tests

The Associated Press
Sunday, October 29, 2006; 10:08 PM

SEOUL, South Korea -- The top U.S. general in South Korea said Monday that more nuclear tests by North Korea could be expected as the communist nation continues work on its atomic weapons program.

However, he didn't cite any specific intelligence that another test was imminent.

"I can only surmise that since they tested one, we would see at some time in the future yet another test of a nuclear device," U.S. Army Gen. B.B. Bell told a news conference, adding that missiles and other weapons also could be tested.

"I think we can expect future tests and part of their program to develop these kinds of very provocative weapons," he said.

Bell was firm that the U.S. and South Korean allied forces could deter aggression from the North and defeat any possible attack. He argued that the North's confirmed nuclear capability since its Oct. 9 nuclear test didn't change the balance of force in the region, because intelligence agencies had believed for several years that Pyongyang had atomic weapons.

Still, he called for a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

"I wish that North Korea would not only stop testing these devices, but stop making them and come back to the bargaining table," he said.

The U.S. and South Korea have been negotiating to transfer wartime command of forces on the peninsula as part of Seoul's efforts to assume more responsibility for its own defense.

South Korea transferred control of its forces to a U.S.-led United Nations command during the 1950-1953 Korean War. Peacetime control of the Korean military was given to the South Koreans in 1994, but the United States retained control should war break out again.

At negotiations earlier this month in Washington, both sides agreed the South would assume wartime command of its own forces sometime between 2009 and 2012.

On Monday, Bell said plans for setting an exact date on the change would be completed by the first half of next year.

As the transition occurs, he said the U.S. would provide "bridging" capabilities to help the South in areas where it is still developing its defenses _ stressing that fighting capability would in no way be diminished. Critics of the transfer deal have said the South lacks intelligence and aerial support capabilities it needs to assume the new role.

Bell said the United States would remain in South Korea as long as it was "welcome and wanted."

Recent comments by the South's presidential security adviser that have been perceived as anti-American have reportedly drawn criticism from U.S. officials. But Bell said the "vast majority" of South Koreans supported the country's alliance with the United States.

© 2006 The Associated Press