Troop control talks were secretiveTORONTO, Canada - Worried about opposition from liberal Korean opposition parties, the Lee Myung-bak administration kept secret its negotiations with Washington to delay the U.S. handover of wartime operational control of South Korean troops, officials said.
“From the early days of this administration, we seriously wondered about the appropriateness of the wartime control takeover,” Kim Sung-hwan, senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs and security, said Saturday after Lee and U.S. President Barack Obama announced a more than three year delay in the handover. But, sources said, Lee was determined to treat the issue with extreme delicacy, and, ultimately, secrecy.
“This is the most sensitive issue in terms of our national security,” Lee was quoted as saying in November last year. “It is a tough issue because some people link the wartime operational control with the nation’s pride.”
When the 1950-53 Korean War began, South Korea handed over peacetime and wartime operational control of its soldiers to the U.S.-led United Nations Command, and then to the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command. In 1994, Seoul regained peacetime control, and the Roh Moo-hyun administration struck a deal with Washington in 2007 that Seoul would command its troops in wartime starting April 17, 2012. They trumpeted the agreement as a restoration of Korean sovereignty.
With the agreement between Lee and Obama Saturday, that transfer will be pushed back to December 1, 2015.
At the start of his term, sources say, Lee did not think of asking for a delay from the U.S. He planned to stick with the agreed upon timetable, while coming up with reinforcement measures to prevent a national security vacuum.
Three years into his term, however, Lee changed his mind and decided to push for a delay. According to officials, North Korea’s second nuclear in May 2009 and long-range rocket tests of last year served as catalysts.
Seoul was also feeling time pressure, because it has to acquire an independent intelligence-gathering capability, a command and control system and a new communication network before taking control. Lee and his security aides also pointed out that 2012 was a bad time for the handover because presidential elections take place in South Korea and the U.S. and a change of leadership is due in China.
In early February of this year, Kim Tae-hyo, presidential secretary for national security strategy, paid a visit to Washington and started negotiations on delaying the transfer of control. The negotiations became urgent, according to South Korean officials, after the Navy warship Cheonan sank in March. Conservatives in South Korea rallied around the issue, demanding a delay.
The tipping point came at the Asia Security Summit, also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore in June, according to Seoul officials. Lee, Kim and Defense Minister Kim Tae-young all met with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and tried to convince him of the need for a delay.
Gates played a main role in the 2007 negotiation and was reluctant but eventually persuaded, officials said.
After that, the negotiations progressed speedily. “We didn’t think it was meaningful to delay the transfer by one or two years,” said a senior government official. “We proposed early 2016 or late 2015 when Obama’s term will end [on the assumption he will be reelected].”
On the eve of the summit, the two sides decided to announce an actual date for the transfer.
By Ser Myo-ja, Seo Seung-wook [email@example.com]
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