President Barack Obama has agreed to a South Korean request to postpone the transfer of operational control during wartime of South Korea's armed forces to Seoul, part of steps designed to send a clear message to North Korea about the strength of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
Confirmation of the decision, which would delay transfer of wartime control of forces from 2012 until late 2015, came during the bilateral meeting in Toronto between President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
In that meeting, President Obama expressed solidarity with the people of Korea in the wake of the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, which an international investigation said was caused by a North Korean torpedo.
President Obama said President Lee had handled the matter with judgment and restraint, and had rightly insisted on North Korea being held to account for its actions in the U.N. Security Council.
There must be consequences, said Mr. Obama, for such irresponsible behavior on the international stage.
The South Korean president said they also discussed in detail other follow up steps, and agreed that Korea and the United States would do all they can deter any acts of North Korean aggression.
Transferring wartime control of forces, referred to as OPCON, was part of a bilateral agreement negotiated in 2007 under the Bush administration.
Briefing reporters in Toronto, U.S. officials said South Korea suggested the postponement last February before the sinking of the South Korean ship.
"The purpose of the decision is to send a clear message of the U.S. staying power in the region at a time when that message is important given North Korean conduct over the last year and a half," said Ambassador Jeff Bader, Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.
Danny Russel, Director for Korea and Japan at the National Security Council, also briefed reporters.
"This extension will strengthen the current transition plan, will allow us to synchronize more closely with South Korea's lead of the combined defense, and that the result will be a more capable alliance," said Russel.
South Korea's president said his country and the U.S. are also working to finalize a strongly-worded statement at the United Nations Security Council condemning North Korea. Ambassador Bader said this would be only part of the overall response to the sinking of the South Korean vessel, which killed 46 South Korean sailors.
Leaders of the Group of Eight (G-8) nations, who concluded their summit near Toronto on Saturday, condemned the attack on the Cheonan and demanded that North Korea refrain from committing any attacks or threatening hostilities against South Korea.