South Korea's newly-elected president is signaling new policy directions with regard to North Korea and the United States. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, the incoming Lee Myung-bak administration hopes for closer ties with Washington, and a more sober view of Pyongyang.
A team of U.S. Defense Department envoys is expected to be in Seoul next Monday, for consultations with the transition team of President-elect Lee Myung-bak. A scheduled shift in military command structure between the two countries is expected to top the agenda. South Korea's new leader is to be sworn in next month.
The United States maintains about 28,000 military personnel here in South Korea to deter any repeat of North Korea's 1950 invasion, which began three years of fighting. Under current terms of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, the United States would command both its own and South Korea's military in the event of renewed conflict with the North.
Incumbent President Roh Moo-hyun, who made greater autonomy from the U.S. a key policy platform, negotiated the return of wartime command to South Korea by 2012. However, President-elect Lee Myung-bak's spokesman, Lee Dong-kwan, says it may be time to rethink that agreement.
He says, considering North Korea's nuclear capability, the security of the Korean peninsula and South Korea's military competency, Seoul may seek U.S. cooperation on re-examining the timing of the command transfer.
Lee's comments reflect the concerns of many South Korean security experts that the present transfer arrangement
prematurely dilutes the U.S.-South Korean military alliance. They say, even though North Korea is economically weak, its disproportionate investment in nuclear weapons, artillery, and short-range missiles still poses a significant threat to the South.
Spokesman Lee says President Lee will also take a sharply different approach to dealing with North Korea on approximately 500 South Korean prisoners of the 1950s war believed to be alive in Pyongyang's custody.
He says determining the status of South Korean prisoners of war will now be a high priority item at future inter-Korean military talks.
President Roh's administration, in an effort to engage and avoid angering North Korea, has strongly downplayed the issue of prisoners of war, as well as that of about 500 other South Koreans believed to have been abducted by the North.
At North Korea's request, some of Roh's officials even stopped using the term "prisoners of war" in favor of a politically more neutral term meaning "people missing during and after the war."
Lee's team announced other major changes last week, saying improving North Korea's human rights practices and getting rid of its nuclear weapons will be preconditions for future inter-Korean cooperation. Lee is expected to travel to the United States soon after next month's inauguration for a summit with President Bush aimed at tighter policy integration with Washington.