For more than half a century, the U.S.-led United Nations Command has preserved the peace along the tense demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Now, as Washington prepares to turn over key wartime military responsibilities to South Korea, the commander of U.S. forces in the South says it is time to rethink the structure of the United Nations Command as well. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
General Burwell Bell, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, says it is time to re-examine the command structure responsible for securing the heavily armed border between North and South Korea.
"We must organize ourselves so we have unity in our chain of command: from armistice, through crisis escalation, and into war - should war break out," he said.
In addition to leading the U.S. forces, Bell heads the United Nations Command, or U.N.C., which oversees adherence to the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.
It also works with North Korean military officers to resolve disputes that arise periodically on the dividing line.
Under existing agreements between the United States and South Korea, Bell would command South Korean forces if war broke out again with the North.
However, the U.S. is now in the process of fulfilling a request by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to turn over wartime control of South Korean forces to Seoul no later than 2012.
Bell warns that once that transfer is complete, the U.N.C. commander will not have automatic access to South Korean troops for help in discouraging or repelling a North Korean attack.
"Unless addressed, this situation will make it impossible to credibly maintain the armistice," the general said.
Even small incidents on the Korean peninsula can, in Bell's words, "almost instantaneously" escalate into war. He says it is therefore crucial to re-examine all chains of command dealing with the Korean situation.
Bell dismisses suggestions that the United Nations Command be dissolved altogether, and its responsibilities folded entirely into the South Korean command structures. He says the U.N.C. will continue to play "a vital role."
"It will continue to demonstrate international commitment to the armistice, which - let there be no doubt - deters North Korean aggression," he said.
Bell says keeping the U.N.C. intact will also keep the lines open for U.N. member nations to contribute forces and supplies in a war.
Bell says he envisions future U.S. commanders retaining command of the U.N.C. Both the U.S. and the U.N.C. would act in what he calls a "support role" to the South Korean forces.