Top U.S. general in South Korea: More nuke tests by North expected

Monday, October 30th 2006, 5:57 am
By: News On 6

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) The top U.S. general in South Korea said Monday that more nuclear tests can be expected by North Korea as it develops its atomic weapons program, and stressed that U.S. and South Korean forces could deter any aggression.

U.S. Army General B.B. Bell didn't cite specific intelligence that another test was imminent, but said that could be expected in the future as part of North Korea's weapons program.

"I can only surmise that since they tested one, we would see at some time in the future yet another test of a nuclear device,'' Bell told a news conference, adding that missiles and other weapons also could be tested.

A South Korean newspaper reported that the North fired five short-range missiles during military training last week.

North Korea fired the ground-to-air and air-to-air missiles, with ranges from 6 miles to 30 miles, as part of an annual training session, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified South Korean government official.

The North fired a series of longer-range missiles in July, including an intercontinental ballistic missile that many believe could potentially hit the United States.

Bell said that the U.S. and South Korean allied forces could deter aggression from the North and defeat any possible attack. He argued that the North's confirmed nuclear capability since its October 9th nuclear test didn't change the balance of force in the region, because intelligence agencies had believed for several years that Pyongyang had atomic weapons.

He called for a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

"I wish that North Korea would not only stop testing these devices, but stop making them and come back to the bargaining table,'' he said.

Bell added that the U.S. "nuclear umbrella'' continues to protect the South as part of the two countries' security cooperation.

In a commentary in its main Rodong Sinmun newspaper, North Korea said the United States' nuclear weapons won't be able to protect the South but "will be a source of disaster and trouble bringing the holocaust of nuclear war.''

The U.S. and South Korea have been negotiating to transfer wartime command of forces on the peninsula as part of Seoul's efforts to assume more responsibility for its own defense.

South Korea transferred control of its forces to a U.S.-led United Nations command during the 1950-1953 Korean War. Peacetime control of the Korean military was given to the South Koreans in 1994, but the United States retained control should war break out again.

At negotiations earlier this month in Washington, both sides agreed the South would assume wartime command of its own forces sometime between 2009 and 2012.

Bell said details will be decided in the first half of next year, adding that the change could take place within three years, in the earlier part of the agreed time span.

Critics of the transfer deal have said the South lacks intelligence and aerial support capabilities it needs to assume the new role.

Bell said that as the transition occurs the U.S. would provide "bridging'' capabilities to help the South in areas where it is still developing its defenses, stressing that fighting capability would in no way be diminished.

He said the United States would remain in South Korea as long as it was "welcome and wanted.''

Recent comments by the South's presidential security adviser that have been perceived as anti-American have reportedly drawn criticism from U.S. officials. But Bell said the "vast majority'' of South Koreans supported the country's alliance with the United States.

About 29,500 U.S. troops remain in the South, a remnant of the Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire that persists to this day. Their numbers are set to decline by several thousand in coming years.