S. Korea reluctant to let U.S. give up control of its troops
SEOUL — Sixty years after the end of the Korean War, the United States and South Korea still can't agree on who should take charge if another war breaks out with the communist neighbor to the north.
For years, Washington has been trying to persuade the South Korean military to take operational control of its own forces in wartime, ending a six-decade arrangement during which U.S. commanders have retained that authority over South Korean troops. Although supportive in principle, a succession of governments in Seoul has repeatedly delayed the command transfer, reinforcing doubts about whether the South Korean military is capable of operating without U.S. leadership.
Previous deals that would have transferred wartime command of South Korean troops to Seoul in 2009 and 2012 fell by the wayside. Now the latest timetable — to transfer control to the South Korean military by December 2015 — has become infected with doubt as South Korean leaders have expressed anxieties again about their ability to command their troops in the face of threats from an increasingly unpredictable North Korea.
South Korean officials began a public campaign this summer for another delay beyond 2015 but haven't specified a new date. U.S. officials have not agreed to any changes so far. Some have said they are becoming frustrated with South Korea's reluctance to take charge of its own defense.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Seoul for three days of talks. But he told reporters traveling with him that he doubted that the thorny issue could be resolved during his visit.
“We're constantly reevaluating each of our roles,” Hagel said. “That does not at all subtract from, or in any way weaken, our commitment.”
In a reminder of how a sudden outbreak of war remains a constant threat here, Hagel was scheduled on Monday to tour the Demilitarized Zone, the 2.5-mile-wide buffer that divides North and South Korea and is the most heavily guarded border in the world.
There are 28,500 U.S. troops permanently stationed in South Korea. That's a fraction of the size of the South Korean military, which has 640,000 personnel. The South Korean government, however, considers the U.S. military presence a crucial deterrent, and some South Korean officials worry that a lessening of the U.S. role could embolden North Korea.
In February, North Korea conducted a nuclear test, two months after testing a long-range ballistic missile that could potentially strike the western United States. Memories are also fresh here of a March 2010 incident in which North Korea torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors.
The question of who would take command of joint U.S.-South Korean forces during another Korean conflict is an unresolved hangover from the Cold War.