- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

SEOUL — Planning for a handover of military command to South Korean forces has failed to provide for a small but vital U.N. force, jeopardizing the allied deterrent on the Peninsula, the U.S. commander said.

Gen. Burwell B. Bell, joint head of the Combined Forces Command, warned that the problem must be resolved because a crisis on the Peninsula could “almost instantaneously lead to combat operations.”

In that case, “there could be no time to make changes in our command structure while crisis escalates,” Gen. Bell told reporters. Unless the problem is addressed, “this situation will make it impossible to credibly maintain the armistice.”

Combined Forces Command, led since the Korean War by a U.S. general, has operational wartime control over about 29,000 U.S. troops and more than 600,000 South Korean troops.

At the request of the government of President Roh Moo-hyun, that command will be dissolved, and the South Korean forces would serve under South Korean command. The change is set to go into effect in the next two to five years.

However, Gen. Bell warned, no adequate planning has been done for the parallel U.N. Command, a largely administrative body that oversees the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

The unit has only 60 soldiers, but it provides the legal framework for the mobilization of reinforcements from the 16 U.N. member states that fought in the Korean War if another conflict breaks out.

“It allows sending states to return forces to Korea without further [U.N.] resolutions,” said Dave Oten, spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea. “The legal authority is already there.”

Gen. Bell, in a meeting with foreign journalists late last week that was also attended by senior diplomats from the 16-nation U.N. coalition, warned that clarity in command structures will be essential during the coming transition to Korean command.

“The inactivation of Combined Forces Command and the transfer of Republic of Korea forces wartime [operational command] to an independent ROK military command will create a military authority-to-responsibility mismatch for the United Nations Command,” he said, using the acronym for Republic of Korea.

He noted that the U.N. commander would no longer have “immediate access” to South Korean troops, a situation that would undermine the military deterrent.

Traditionally, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea also serves as U.N. commander. Gen. Bell said he expects that arrangement to continue and that the U.N. commander will maintain operational control of all U.N. forces in Korea.

One ambassador at the conference confirmed that his country was paying close attention to the way the U.N. Command will be structured during the transition.

The United States and South Korea are at odds over the timing of the transition of the Combined Forces command. Although the Korean government proposed the change, it is in less of a hurry than the American side is.

Seoul expects to be ready to take full control after 2012, but Washington is pressing to make the switch as early as 2009.

Gen. Bell said that he hoped a definite date would be ironed out through bilateral negotiations by this summer.

It was the general’s second press conference this year. Two weeks ago, he spoke about issues bedeviling the U.S.-Korea alliance, particularly budgetary disagreements and reported Korean moves to delay the redeployment of American troops from their central Seoul base to a less intrusive garrison near the city of Pyeongtaek, 40 miles south of the capital.

The frank nature of the general’s comments surprised some analysts.

“Bell is expressing his frustration. the Korean side doesn’t want to make difficult decisions, and it is leaving Washington frustrated,” said Peter Beck, a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“There is not even a master plan for Pyeongtaek that both sides can agree on. Korea wants control, but doesn’t have the means of pulling it off on their own.”

The alliance has been strained by mass anti-American protests aimed at U.S. troops, the rise in South Korea of a new generation of liberal politicians who are critical of Washington and the Bush administration’s suspicion toward Seoul’s attempts to engage North Korea.

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