SEOUL | Extending the tours of U.S. troops serving in South Korea to three years and allowing them to bring their families is overdue, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday as he arrived in Seoul.
The change in deployments is caught up in the ongoing transfer of military bases to South Korean control, but Mr. Gates said it's time to stop the one-year, unaccompanied tours that forces currently serve here because it is considered a war zone.
"As a matter of principle, I think it's past time" to extend the tours, Mr. Gates told reporters traveling with him on the plane to Seoul. "It communicates that ... our view of the reality here is that the Republic of Korea is literally safe enough for our families to be present."
The relocation and realignment of U.S. troops in the South is expected to take until 2012, and Mr. Gates said the shift is on track. At least 23 of the U.S. camps - vestiges of the Korean War - have been transferred as part of a broader plan to have Seoul assume more responsibility for its own defenses and take over its own wartime command.
The key reason for Mr. Gates' visit this week is to attend the ceremony marking the change in U.S. military commanders. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Walter L. Sharp takes charge of the U.S. military command in South Korea, replacing Army Gen. B.B. Bell, to lead roughly 28,000 U.S. troops on the peninsula.
Gen. Sharp assumes command Tuesday morning. He is expected to be promoted to a four-star general.
In addition Mr. Gates said he expects to meet Tuesday with South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee.
Mr. Gates said his meetings with South Korean officials will center on Seoul's increasing efforts to participate in global and regional issues. South Korea has troops in Iraq, and have been talking about sending some medical personnel to Afghanistan.
Later, Mr. Gates will travel the 30 miles to the Demilitarized Zone - where guard posts and barbed wire separate the South from North Korea.
Mr. Gates wants to meet with U.S. troops serving on the border.
The U.S. forces are still deployed in the South as a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty. Under the current military arrangements, the U.S. commander would lead all allied forces under a joint command in the event of a renewed conflict.
In response to questions from Congress earlier this year, Gen. Sharp said that North Korea "remains the primary threat to security in Northeast Asia."
And he said that while upgrades in the PAC-3 Patriot missile defense system have improved protection for the bases in the South, there is a significant shortage of the weapons needed to counter the North Korean missile threat.
Mr. Gates' visit comes as officials say North Korea is poised to submit the long-delayed declaration of its nuclear programs.