WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration took pains Wednesday to portray as mutually advantageous the impending turnover to the South Koreans of wartime operational control of their country's armed forces.
Under the half-century alliance that began with the U.S.-led response to North Korean invaders in 1950, U.S. forces stationed in South Korea and South Korean troops are under a Combined Forces Command headed by an American general. President Roh Moo-hyun, in his campaign in 2002, promoted the idea that South Korea was mature enough to assume wartime operational control. The current arrangement slights South Korean sovereignty, he contends.
At a House hearing on Wednesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill noted that the idea has drawn some antagonism in Korea from people who claimed the United States was abandoning its ally. The Americans already have begun reducing numbers of their troops and turning over some jobs in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea and elsewhere.
``I realize that for many Koreans, contemplating the end of this arrangement is difficult,'' Hill said. ``It is important for the Koreans to understand that it is the United States' enduring commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea, not a military headquarters, that has safeguarded their country for more than 50 years.''
Hill, the senior State Department official for East Asia, earlier told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the alliance, with Korean troops under Korean command, will remain a deterrent to any North Korean attack.
``We are utterly committed, morally and treaty-bound committed,'' to South Korea's defense, he said.
Nothing in the U.S.-South Korean discussions on the transfer, he said, ``has anything whatsoever to do with the integrity of that alliance.''
At the hearing of the House International Relations Committee, a senior Defense Department official, Richard P. Lawless, joined Hill to discuss the South Korean developments. He said the move is welcomed not only by the South Koreans but by other Asian allies.
``We have seen this as the natural next step in the evolution of the alliance for some time, as have our regional partners,'' said Lawless, deputy defense undersecretary for Asia and Pacific affairs.
He said it is unfortunate that some in Roh's government ``have chosen to define the issue as one of sovereignty versus alliance. Change of this nature is difficult, and there are other voices in South Korea expressing concerns that this transition might signal U.S. abandonment. Nothing could be further from the truth.''
South Korea transferred control of its forces to a U.S.-led United Nations command during the Korean War, which was stopped by a truce in 1953. Peacetime control of the military was given to the South Koreans in 1994, but the United States retained control should war break out again.