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US, South Korea Discuss Changes in Military Relationship


Senior South Korean and American defense officials are meeting in Seoul to discuss major transformations in the two countries' military relationship. The two sides are aiming at more military independence for South Korea, and a strategy for dealing with possible chaos in North Korea.

If war ever comes to the Korean peninsula again, South Korea wants to be able to command its own troops.

Under the two countries' present agreement, however, South Korea's 680,000 military personnel would be under U.S. command if a new Korean war broke out.

South Korean defense officials say the main goal of this week's talks is to draft a road map laying out how - and possibly when - wartime command will be shifted. But senior South Korean defense officials say the logistics of transferring full control mean that will not happen for at least five years.

Washington has not committed to any timetable for transferring wartime control to South Korea, but it has taken steps toward giving South Korean commanders more autonomy.

In the past three years, South Korean forces have assumed seven of the ten major military operations involved in the country's defense, including patrolling the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone between North and South.

General Burwell Bell, Commander of U.S. forces in Korea, told U.S. lawmakers this week that the American military will gradually take on a supporting role as South Korea assumes more command.

About 30,000 U.S. forces are stationed in South Korea to deter North Korea from invading, as it did in 1950.

Richard Lawless, the U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, is representing Washington at this week's meeting - referred to as the "Security Policy Initiative", or SPI. He and his South Korean counterpart, Kwon An-do, aim to have a draft road map ready by later this year, when minister-level defense talks are scheduled.

Seoul regained peacetime control of its military in 1994. President Roh Moo-hyun, in office since 2003, has made gaining wartime control a centerpiece of what he describes as a new "balancing role" for his country in Northeast Asian security.

Lee Ki-tak, a Korean affairs expert at Seoul's Yonsei University, says a fundamental rift exists in the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

Lee says the two countries have strongly divergent approaches toward North Korea, which affects security policy.

Lee says the United States perceives the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-il as a threat, and seeks to destabilize it. In South Korean eyes, the perceived threat has diminished dramatically since a breakthrough North-South summit in 2000, which has resulted in increased contacts between the two countries.

Before the discussions wrap up on Wednesday, Seoul and Washington also plan to discuss what they call Concept Plan 5029. This plan would outline joint military operations in the event of major upheaval in the North, such as a natural disaster or sudden regime change.

One of the plan's main goals in such a case would be to secure North Korean facilities for producing weapons of mass destruction. Pyongyang says it has nuclear weapons, and has refused to give up its nuclear programs during three years of multi-nation negotiations.