Thursday, August 3, 2006

The Pentagon plans to give South Korea wartime operational control over Korean troops within three years and will keep U.S. troop levels at more than 20,000 over the next several years, defense officials said yesterday.

“Things are changing in Korea,” said a defense official involved in the changes being drawn up in talks called the Security Policy Initiative.

Following the latest round of U.S.-South Korea talks July 13 and 14, the Pentagon and South Korean military and defense officials agreed to draw up the command transfer plan that will shift combat authority from the U.S.-led combined forces command to a new structure led by South Korean military commanders and supported by U.S. forces.

The goal is to complete the transfer of authority by 2009, but some changes could take five years.

“We are responding to the new realities on the peninsula,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Those realities include growing South Korean military capabilities, Seoul’s pro-engagement policies toward the communist North, and anti-American sentiments among South Korean leaders.

The shift of operational control of South Korean forces “means that they would take the lead in a conventional war on the Korean Peninsula in deterring and defeating” North Korean forces, the official said.

As for troop levels, officials said there are no plans for major U.S. troop cuts beyond plans to have 25,000 troops by 2008. The Pentagon plans to keep 20,000 to 25,000 troops in the country for the foreseeable future, the official said, noting that the fighting power of both U.S. and South Korean forces will remain constant or increase as new weapons are deployed.

A recent statement by a South Korean defense official that the latest talks did not include discussions of U.S. troops in a future reunified Korea triggered inaccurate press reports that the U.S. planned to pull troops out of Korea, the officials said.

“We’re not going away,” the senior official said. “We’re going to stay and we’re going to stay with increased capabilities.”

Future forces there will shift from the current force of large ground combat troop units to forces emphasizing air and naval power, the official said. That shift would take place only after the new command structure is set up. The reorganization would abolish current U.S.-led combined forces command structure, set up in 1978 to replace the United Nations command that dated back to the Korean War in the 1950s.

As part of the talks, U.S. and South Korean officials recently completed a comprehensive security assessment of the region and are working on a “joint vision study” that will examine the future of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance.

The study will focus on alliance changes stemming from South Korea’s evolving relationship with North Korea, including the prospect of a formal peace agreement to replace the armistice that has been the basis for the half-century-old U.S.-South Korea defense alliance.

“We are trying to anticipate all these stages of evolution that might eventually end up in unification, but may not,” the official said. “We may end up in a permanent situation where the two Koreas are de-conflicted, they have a peace treaty, and they’re interacting between one another and the alliance will have to be fundamentally restructured.”

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