President defends push to take over troop command
US control akin to outsourcing the country's leader, Roh says
Washington's push to hand over wartime command of South Korean forces has prompted a fierce and intensifying debate, with liberals insisting the issue runs to the core of South Korean sovereignty and conservatives warning it threatens the country's security.
President Roh Moo-hyun yesterday strongly defended his insistence on a change of command, comparing Washington's role to hiring a foreigner as the country's leader.
'Defence potential is the key to protecting national sovereignty. And the president is the commander in chief of the nation's armed forces,' Mr Roh said in an interview, set to be broadcast late yesterday on state-run KBS television, according to a transcript provided by Mr Roh's office.
Seoul has proposed a handover date of 2012, but a letter sent by US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld to his South Korean counterpart and made public by Seoul, suggests Washington wants to hand over responsibility by 2009.
But some of South Korea's top military men were supporting calls to suspend negotiations between Seoul and Washington to discuss the implications of any handover.
'The transfer of wartime command would seem to be an issue where both sides [South Korean and US] could easily agree. Sovereign nations usually want full control of their armed forces, and the US is agreeing to exactly that. But within Korea, alliance politics has become a political football,' said Dennis Florig of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
Conservatives and defence experts claimed talk about the handover was premature and believed it would weaken both the alliance with the US and its deterrent effect on North Korea, which is still technically at war with the South. But there is little sign that the liberal administration of President Roh is heeding their warning.
South Korea's military command structure is a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war when the country placed its military under the control of the US-led United Nations Command (UNC).
In 1978, the US military Combined Forces Command (CFC) was created, which took over wartime control rights from the UNC.
Seoul regained peacetime control of its forces in 1994.
The transfer of military command would be preceded by a repositioning of US forces. American troops stationed in the country's north, between the capital and the Demilitarised Zone were scheduled to be moved farther south by 2008.
But Kim Sung-han of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security was sceptical about the proposed timetable.
'The transfer date of 2009 is impossible. It is contingent on US troops being moved from their main garrison in Seoul by 2008, but that move has already been delayed for various reasons, it needs to be rescheduled.'
But this will do little to ease the fears of conservatives and the opposition party in South Korea horrified by President Roh's suggestion that Seoul would be able to take over wartime operation command immediately, if necessary.
Conservatives believe Washington's eagerness would weaken what they see as the already strained alliance with the US.
Mr Roh was elected in 2002 on a wave of anti-American sentiment, pledging to promote more independence from the US, and his presidency has witnessed a deterioration in relations between to two traditional allies.
'There is an element in Washington which is saying 'to hell with the alliance, we have had enough of this barrage of anti-Americanism',' said Lee Jung-hoon of Yonsei University.
A road map for a handover was expected to be announced after a major security consultation between South Korea and the US in October.
'We are in the process of transition. This is a very dangerous period. We have to be aware that North Korea might take it as an opportunity to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US,' warned Professor Kim Sung-han