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Repairing U.S.-South Korea Relations

By Richard Halloran

The president-elect of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, has started a campaign to repair the serious damage done to his nation's alliance with the United States by Seoul's incumbent, President Roh Moo-hyun.

Even so, American military officers are pushing ahead with plans to reduce the number of US forces in Korea, to shift command responsibilities to the Koreans, and to bring home the headquarters of the Eighth Army and that of the Second Infantry Division, the remaining US combat unit on the peninsula.

President-elect Lee, who is scheduled to be inaugurated on February 25, told foreign correspondents in Seoul in mid-January: "For the security goals of Korea and regional stability, the alliance between South Korea and the United States will be reconstructed in a creative manner."

He said his government would exercise "pragmatic economic diplomacy" and "we will ratify the FTA [free trade agreement] with the United States at the earliest possible time." President George Bush echoed that in a request to Congress in his state of the union address this week. There is considerable opposition to the FTA, however, from vested interests both in Washington and Seoul.

Lee sent a special envoy, Chung Moon-joon, to Washington in late January to see President Bush and other senior officials. Chung sought to elicit an invitation to Lee to visit Washington and urged all he met to reverse or at least slow down a planned reduction in US forces in Korea.

Chung was evidently successful on his first mission as President Lee plans to fly to Washington in April. But the special envoy got nowhere with his second task. American officials said months ago that by the end of last year, they would complete plans to lessen the US presence in Korea.

President Roh ran for election in 2003 on a platform that was anti-American.

Throughout his term he has disparaged the alliance and sought to restrict US operations in Korea itself and from Korea to other areas. His policy toward North Korea has appeared to some Americans to border on appeasement. As a consequence, officials in the Roh and Bush governments distrust each other.

At a meeting of Korean and US scholars, diplomats, and other specialists in New York in November, they agreed: "There is a need to rebuild mutual trust and confidence, develop a clear and more popularly accepted rationale for the relationship, and prepare the relationship to deal with future challenges."

A critical issue has been the Roh government's demand that operational control of South Korean forces in wartime be handed from American commanders to South Korean officers. The US has approved this change and both governments have agreed that it will take place in April 2012.

That date appears to have become something of a deadline for other changes. The Combined Forces Command in Seoul now led by an American four-star general with a South Korea deputy will disappear as both peacetime and wartime command will be in the hands of the Koreans.

President-elect Lee, with the backing of some Korean military officers, had sought to delay that change, arguing that Koreans are not yet ready to handle that responsibility. General Burwell B. Bell, the US commander in Seoul, said in New York this week that the 2012 date is firm.

Moreover, US officers said the headquarters of the Eighth Army, the overall US Army command unit in Seoul, would move to Hawaii by 2012. In addition, the headquarters of the Second Infantry Division, which has only one ground combat brigade instead of the usual three or four, will leave Korea even though its destination has not yet been decided.

About 27,000 US troops are currently posted in Korea. That number will soon decline to 25,000 and keep on dropping gradually, probably to fewer than 20,000. Those troops are needed elsewhere in an Army that is stretched thin by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, US officers contend that South Korean forces should take charge of defending their own country from their potential enemy in North Korea. Some assert that the Koreans have long shirked that duty and thus have not prepared themselves to take over the communications, intelligence, and logistics essential to large-scale operations.

For that reason, US officers said, units like the 1st Signal Brigade, which provides strategic and tactical communications; the 501st Military Intelligence Brigade, which gets information for commanders; and the 19th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), which is the logistic arm of Eighth Army, will remain in Korea after 2012.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

Copyright 2008, Real Clear Politics

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