The United States and South Korea agreed on Friday to accelerate talks on allowing South Korea to control its own forces during any future war. That control now rests with an American general as part of a combined forces treaty. The agreement on faster talks was announced in a joint communiqué issued after annual talks between the two countries' defense chiefs.
The communiqué says the two officials agreed "to appropriately accelerate discussions on command relations and wartime operational control." The visiting U.S. Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said a move to South Korean control of its own forces would be part of a natural evolution of the country's capabilities, and its relationship with the United States.
"As the capabilities of the Republic of Korea grow, obviously they will assume more and more responsibility as they have been doing in recent years," Secretary Rumsfeld said. "And as that happens, in an orderly way, over time, clearly, there will be adjustments in the command relationships. And those are the kinds of things that allies discuss."
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun called for more South Korean responsibility in defense matters in a speech early this month. Senior U.S. officials say they have no problem with that, but they also say moves in that direction require detailed analysis and careful implementation. Secretary Rumsfeld declined to estimate when a change of command might actually happen.
U.S. officials note that the United States has withdrawn 8,000 troops from the peninsula, with another 4,500 scheduled to leave soon. As part of the plan, South Korea has taken control of six types of military operations, and will take over four more within the next two years. Secretary Rumsfeld says that process will continue.
"There'll be a new list of things they'll take over, and as that happens, we'll see them play a larger and larger role in this Combined Forces Command, and the United States will be able to play a somewhat lesser role," he said. "How that will evolve over time depends on a variety of things."
Among the factors, Secretary Rumsfeld says, is the future of talks with North Korea on ending its nuclear weapons program.
U.S. officials say they can see some role for U.S. troops in South Korea for a long time to come, as part of the region's overall strategic balance, especially as China increases its military capability.
At a meeting on Friday, President Roh told Secretary Rumsfeld his visit to China this week was "auspicious" and would have an impact on regional and global stability. The president told a South Korean Website Friday he is concerned about a potential big-power clash in northeast Asia. U.S. officials say, even with South Korea's eagerness to take control of its forces in wartime, the country's military modernization program has the alliance with the United States as its "centerpiece" for many years to come.