Korea-U.S. Defense Meet Brings Mixed Blessings for Seoul

      October 23, 2009 11:58

      The major issues the Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting held in Seoul Thursday took up were the transfer of full operational control of Korean troops to Seoul, help in the war in Afghanistan and what is called "extended deterrence" of the North Korean nuclear threat. Seoul's position was amply reflected in the matter of extended deterrence, but on the other two issues the outcome fell short of the government's expectations.

      The question of dispatching Korean troops to Afghanistan was much in the spotlight due to rhetorical pressure on Seoul from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell ahead of the meeting. Morrell had urged Seoul to give more economic aid, and Gates had said that South Korea's international military contribution should be perceived as helping the South's security and core national interests, which was taken as a roundabout way of calling for troops to Afghanistan.

      No official request for troops was made at the SCM, and the joint statement did not specifically refer to the issue. Gates reiterated that it is totally up to Korea to decide what kind of support it will give.

      But judging from unofficial prodding by the U.S. since last year, what America really wants is troops rather than mere economic aid. Hence the government is likely to keep agonizing over the question. If an accord is reached, Korea is most likely to send 300-500 guards to protect troops engaged in peaceful reconstruction.

      On the transfer of full troop control to Seoul, conservative veteran organizations and some government agencies hoped that the U.S. might be willing to postpone beyond April 2012. "Some government agencies have unofficially enquired about a possible postponement of the transfer," said an official.

      Prior to Gates' departure for Japan and Korea, a senior U.S. Defense Department official said the transfer of operational control would be decided based on the situation in 2012, which some optimists here had read as implying that postponement is possible. But Gates twice made it clear that the two countries are well on schedule for the handover.

      Organizations led by retired generals and others plan to again urge maintaining Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command before the Seoul-Washington summit next month.

      The joint statement Thursday pledged "the firm and unwavering U.S. commitment to the defense of [South Korea] using both capabilities postured on the Korean Peninsula and globally available U.S. forces and capabilities that are strategically flexible to deploy to augment the combined defense in case of crisis." The unusually fulsome wording may be a bid to calm fears in South Korea ahead of the dismantling of the CFC besides stating a firm U.S. commitment to security on the Korean Peninsula.

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