Less than two weeks after North Korea's nuclear test, the United States and South Korea disagreed Friday on the wording of a joint communiqué restating the U.S. commitment to use its nuclear deterrent to protect South Korea. The disagreement was on display at a news conference at the Pentagon.
The United States and South Korea have one of the closest military alliances in the world. But at ministerial talks here Friday, the U.S. defense secretary and the South Korean defense minister publicly disagreed on what for the Koreans is a key clause in their annual communiqué.
At a news conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the United States reaffirms its commitment to the defense of South Korea, including continuing to extend what is known as the U.S. 'nuclear umbrella' to protect the country.
"We have expressed this commitment in every communiqué since 1978," said Mr. Rumsfeld. "And that commitment has sent a clear signal for over three decades. And thus, the commitment is as solid today as it was when it was first stated."
Then, a reporter asked Secretary Rumsfeld about a South Korean request to add new language to the communiqué to strengthen that commitment.
"I don't recall hearing any proposal to change it, and I haven't seen any language that would be different, nor can I imagine how it could be improved upon," he added.
But South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang Ung confirmed that his delegation was seeking a change in the communiqué.
Minister Yoon said he hopes when the joint statement is published it will have different wording from past years. Secretary Rumsfeld indicated he was not aware of that.
Later, a senior U.S. defense official confirmed that discussions were continuing about the final wording of the communiqué, but the official said the wording on the nuclear umbrella will not be changed.
This official, who requested anonymity in order to share details of the discussions, said the main sticking point involves another sensitive issue, the timing of the handover of operational control of South Korean forces to their own commanders. Currently, in case of war, U.S. officers would command a joint force.
Earlier, Secretary Rumsfeld and Minister Yoon had confirmed that the United States wants to hand over control in 2009, but the South Korean government does not think it will be ready to take that control until 2012.
In addition, Secretary Rumsfeld said the United States and South Korea should share the cost of defending the southern part of the peninsula in 'roughly equal' proportions. Minister Yoon did not endorse that, saying only that his country's share of the cost has risen steadily, except the last two years, and he hopes to reach agreement this year on future contributions.
On other issues, the two senior officials indicated wide agreement, including progress on plans to move a large U.S. military base out of central Seoul, and also to move other U.S. forces farther south.
But it was not clear whether South Korea would agree to a U.S. request that it join the Proliferation Security Initiative. The initiative is a U.S.-led program to enlist other nations in the effort to stop shipments of material related to weapons of mass destruction. That includes inspecting ships in ports and at sea. South Korea has been reluctant to make a commitment to do that, apparently concerned that it could lead to a confrontation with North Korea.