Minister: Transfer of wartime control may be delayed

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Minister: Transfer of wartime control may be delayed

Seoul has been considering delaying the scheduled 2012 transfer of wartime operational control from the United States to South Korea since North Korea’s nuclear test last spring, the South’s Foreign Minster Yu Myung-hwan said yesterday.

Yu’s comment came days before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama meet this weekend at the G-20 Summit in Toronto to discuss pressing issues, which may include delaying the transfer of wartime operational command. Yu said Seoul, which in 2007 agreed with Washington to the 2012 deadline, started to have second thoughts in May 2009.

”What’s important in implementing the strategic shift [in wartime operational control] is considering situations in the Korean Peninsula and have them factored into the process,” Yu said. “We started to recognize changes in the situation when North Korea conducted its second nuclear test.”

Neither the Blue House nor the White House has publicly admitted that the two countries are in talks to delay the 2012 deadline. But Yu signaled that the two nations might be open to the possibility.

“South Korea and the U.S. have been reviewing steps to implement the [command transfer] plan on a regular basis to reflect the latest situations, and the two leaders can freely discuss their interests, if necessary,” he said.

North Korea, which first test-blasted nuclear explosives in October 2006, conducted its second underground nuclear test in May 2009, four months after Obama took office.

Since 1954, wartime operation of South Korean troops has remained under the control of the top U.S. military commander in Korea, where about 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed. In 2007, the United States and the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun agreed that Seoul would take over operational command in April 2012.

Conservatives in Korea have long worried that transferring operational command could weaken Seoul’s military deterrence against Pyongyang. The idea of delaying the transfer gained currency as inter-Korean tensions escalated after Lee Myung-bak - known for his hard-line stance against Pyongyang - took office in 2008. Security fears were fanned by the March 26 attack on the South Korean warship Cheonan, which killed 46 Navy soldiers. Seoul has blamed Pyongyang for the attack.

Amid growing calls to delay the transfer, South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said in April that the government would be “mulling” the possibility during a meeting with lawmakers that month.


By Jung Ha-won [hawon@joongang.co.kr]

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