- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

SEOUL — The commander of U.S. forces in South Korea said yesterday he “certainly” expects another North Korean nuclear test, but dismissed reports that his forces were preparing a pre-emptive strike on the North.

“I can only surmise that since they tested one, they will test another,” Gen. Burwell B. Bell said of North Korea’s Oct. 9 nuclear test during a press conference at Seoul’s Yongsan Garrison. “But I won’t speculate as to when.”

The Washington Times last week quoted nuclear experts including David Albright, a former inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency, saying technical problems encountered by the North in its first test could likely be worked out within a few months.

Gen. Bell also addressed a published report last week that said U.S. and South Korean forces were planning a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.

His forces are “not in the business of developing pre-emptive strike plans,” he said, explaining that the U.S. deployment on the Korea Peninsula is defensive in nature. South Korean government sources also denied the report.

Although some observers worry that the North’s nuclear test shifted the balance of power on the peninsula — an opposition assemblyman, for example, has said the South’s armored forces are incapable of operating in a nuclear environment — Gen. Bell adamantly rejected the argument.

The United States has acted under a mutual defense treaty to extend its “nuclear umbrella” to cover South Korea, he said, while allied forces continue to “overmatch” North Korea in conventional weapons.

The general said Washington remains committed to its half-century alliance with Seoul for as long as the U.S. forces are “welcome and wanted in this country.”

There has been fierce debate in South Korea about the presence of U.S. troops, particularly since two schoolgirls were killed in a traffic accident involving U.S. soldiers in 2002.

Conservatives contend that pro-North Korean agitators have been behind anti-American movements in recent years, and over the weekend five persons — including the deputy secretary-general of the minority Democratic Labor Party and a former student activist — were arrested on suspicion of spying for North Korea.

Gen. Bell affirmed that the wartime command of South Korean forces will be transferred from American to Korean commanders between 2009 and 2012, and predicted a timetable would be announced in the first half of 2007.

He said the United States would extend “bridging capabilities” to make sure there was no gap in command, and warned that precise timing was essential. “We cannot have any doubt of who is in charge,” he said.

He added that U.S. forces in Korea were now “air- and naval-centric” with South Korean forces making up the bulk of land forces. The infantry component of the U.S. contingent has been steadily reduced in recent years.

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