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6 decades on, U.S. stuck in war role in Korea

| Friday, July 26, 2013, 7:18 p.m.
North Korean children perform at the May Day stadium during the 'Arirang' mass games song-and-dance ensemble on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, July 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

WASHINGTON — Sixty years after it finished fighting in Korea, the United States is struggling with two legacies that are reminders of the costs — political, military and human — that war can impose on the generations that follow.

The first is the leading role that America is committed to playing in defending South Korea should the 1950-53 Korean War reignite.

Washington has tried for years to wean its ally, Seoul, off its dependence on the U.S. military by setting a target date for switching from American to Korean control of the forces that would defend the country in the event the North attacked the South. That target date has slipped from 2012 to 2015 and, this past week, American officials said the Koreans are informally expressing interest in pushing it back further.

Bruce Bennett, a Korea expert at the RAND Corp., a federally funded think tank, says he believes the argument for giving Seoul wartime command of its own troops loses ground as North Korea's nuclear ambitions grow bolder. The North has tested nuclear devices and may be capable of mounting one on a ballistic missile — a worry not only for South Korea, Japan and others in the region but also for the United States.

“From the South Korean perspective — and I believe there is a lot of truth to their argument — having the U.S. in (the lead) is a strong deterrent of North Korea, and it means North Korea can't split the alliance,” he said.

The second is the seemingly endless challenge of accounting for U.S. servicemen who remain listed as missing in action. On hold are U.S. hopes to send forensic teams back to North Korea to find MIA remains. The Pentagon says there are about 7,900 MIAs, of which about half are thought to be recoverable.

The common thread that binds these two legacies is the lingering hostility between the North and South and between Pyongyang and Washington, which has no formal diplomatic relations with the communist nation. What began as a Cold War contest, with the former Soviet Union and China siding with the North and the United States and allies supporting the South, remains one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints. In some respects, the security threat from the North has grown more acute.

So the United States is stuck with a lead wartime role in Korea. Some South Koreans even favor asking the United States to reintroduce short-range nuclear weapons onto the peninsula.

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