- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

SEOUL | The defense chiefs of South Korea and the United States agreed Tuesday to bolster their alliance, which has been tested over fierce protests here against U.S. beef imports and a revival of anti-American sentiment.

At the military talks in Seoul, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the U.S. would not pull out any additional troops, reaffirming “the solid U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea.”

“I reaffirmed the discussions and commitments made at Camp David in terms of the U.S. troop level,” Mr. Gates said, referring to April’s Seoul-Washington summit that produced an agreement on upgrading the half-century-old military alliance into a “21st-century strategic alliance.”

Under the summit agreement, the two countries plan to unveil a blueprint for the strategic alliance based on “freedom and democracy, human rights and the principle of a market economy” when President Bush makes a return visit to Seoul, which is likely to happen in July.

The new alliance vision would include a call for a bigger role of the alliance beyond the Korean Peninsula to tackle global issues, such as anti-terrorism and the spread of democracy, according to diplomatic sources.

“We will keep our commitments made at Camp David, and we will ensure we will maintain at least the same capabilities we have here, or perhaps be able to enhance them,” Mr. Gates said.

In a separate press release, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said the two defense chiefs “expressed a shared perception of the need for stronger cooperation in order to develop the [Republic of Korea]-U.S. Alliance into a 21st Century Strategic Alliance and agreed to exert a joint effort for the creative development of the ROK-U.S. relationship.”

The United States has reduced its troops in South Korea to 28,500 from 37,000 as part of Washington’s global troop-realignment plan. The number was to be further downsized to 25,000 by the end of this year, triggering security jitters in South Korea, which still faces a threat from nuclear-armed North Korea and its 1.2-million-strong army.

Fueling Seoul’s security concerns, the United States plans to transfer its wartime operational control of South Korean armed forces back to Seoul by April 2012.

Mr. Gates said the U.S. would freeze the number of troops at the current level, dismissing news reports about a U.S. plan to move out a battalion of Apache attack helicopters from South Korea to be deployed in Afghanistan.

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