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     Feb 16, 2008
Another Korean 'war' casualty
By Donald Kirk

QUANTICO, Virginia - The United States military commander in South Korea is at odds with top Korean defense officials on the critical issue of transfer of forces to Korean command in wartime and appears on his way to premature loss of his post as a result.

General Burwell Baxter ("BB") Bell's upcoming transfer - and retirement - in June reflects a paradox in US-Korean relations over the past decade of left-of-center leadership of the Korean government. It was South Korea that initially demanded the authority over and all troops in time of war while US officials wondered how a South Korean general could take charge of a panoply of highly complex systems, as well as air and naval power, needed to wage a "second Korean war".

As ideologically driven South Korean governments pressed the

case, however, the Pentagon shifted course under Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, saying, in effect, "Let's do it by 2009". That response came as a shock to South Korean generals and defense analysts, who said the intricate transfer would not be technically possible until 2012.

The US eventually assented to the latter date, but now the incoming South Korean government of president-elect Lee Myung-bak wants to postpone the transfer of command perhaps indefinitely while Bell, as commander of US Forces Korea, remains committed to carrying it out as planned.

At the heart of the plan is the dismantlement of the Combined Forces Command (CFC), an "integrated headquarters" led by the US commander in Korea with the top South Korean general in the role of deputy commander. The CFC would cease to exist under the plan for a South Korean general to assume overall command in wartime.

Bell has been so adamant about following through on the plan that it upset South Korean generals who concluded they could not get along. Bell, leaving after two years in command in Korea, has seen his primary task as carrying out a decision signed on by both governments - one that the US had resisted, that the outgoing government in Seoul sees as intrinsic to sovereignty and that the incoming government believes will compromise defenses against North Korea.

Adding to the irony, US military analysts appreciate the concerns of South Korean defense officials while acknowledging that Bell has been caught in a vice between conflicting outlooks and policies in Washington and Seoul. "As long as there's a North Korean threat, there should be a CFC," said Bruce Bechtol, a former intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency who has served several tours in South Korea and now is a professor at the Marine Corps University at this historic base on the Potomac River south of Washington. "They should not dismantle CFC until there's no more North Korean threat."

Bechtol, in his newly published, Red Rogue: The Persistent Challenge of North Korea, concludes the North Korean threat has increased substantially with the production of new and better artillery pieces within easy range of the Seoul-Incheon megapolis, home of half of South Korea's 48 million people, and of missiles capable of wiping out bases and industrial centers everywhere else.

Red Rogue suggests the shift in South Korean outlook, quoting the South Korean National Security Council as stating boldly in April 2005, "We have terminated the US-South Korea Combined Forces Command's efforts to map out a plan, code named 5029, because the plan could be a serious obstacle to exercising Korea's sovereignty."

As the book notes, however, "The decision-making process appears to have been conducted entirely by the ROK [Republic of Korea] National Security council - not the Defense Ministry."

The election of Lee Myung-bak has again given primacy to the Ministry of National Defense, as opposed to the National Security Council, and to conservative political voices dedicated to the US-Korean alliance - and to perpetuating the Combined Forces Command as long as possible. As Bechtol put it, "A lot of the base that got Lee elected think CFC is vital to national security."

Lee is expected to press for revision of the plan, meaning postponement at least until 2020, when he sees President George W Bush for their first summit after South Korea's National Assembly elections in April. Lee, who rode a conservative landslide over his government-backed leftist opponent in December's presidential election, believes conservatives will gain a majority in April, giving him a convincing mandate to carry out his policies both at home and abroad, notably vis-a-vis the US.

Pressure to strengthen the US-Korean alliance - and to preserve the Combined Forces Command - is intensifying with the failure of North Korea to live up to terms of agreements reached at the six-party talks last year under which the North is to provide a complete list of everything in its nuclear inventory.

So far North Korea has shut down its five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, where technicians fabricated enough fissile material for between six and 12 nuclear warheads with plutonium at their core. The North, however, has resisted demands to reveal details of efforts to develop warheads with highly enriched uranium, the program whose revelation in October 2002 triggered the nuclear crisis that detonated the 1994 Geneva agreement under which the North had shut down the Yongbyon reactor in the first place.

US negotiators are hoping North Korea will come around to detailing its nuclear inventory when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performs in Pyongyang on February 26, the day after Lee's inauguration in Seoul.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza is weighing the possibility of flying to Pyongyang after attending Lee's inauguration, joining William Perry, who served as defense secretary when Bill Clinton was president and wrote an elaborate review of US policy on North Korea. Two former diplomats, Donald Gregg, US ambassador to Korea under the first president George Bush, and Evans Revere, former deputy chief of mission of the US Embassy in Seoul, will also go to Pyongyang in their roles as chairman and president of the Korea Society in New York.

All these emissaries hope to sit down for lengthy discussions with the North's chief nuclear envoy, Kim Kye-gwan, emphasizing the need for rapid action on living up to the six-party agreements, but the North may prefer to see whether Lee as president carries out what appear to be a relatively hardline policy. The first test will be whether Lee agrees to provide several hundred thousand tons of food and fertilizer with no questions asked, as Roh Moo-hyun, the outgoing president, was accustomed to doing, or will follow through on demands for "reciprocity", possibly in the form of return of South Korean fishermen kidnapped to the North.

The fear is, if North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il fails to respond positively, reconciliation could go into reverse, another crisis, even war, could loom over the Korean Peninsula, and US and South Korean commanders would have to cooperate closely on incredibly difficult issues of C4I, "command, control, communications and intelligence".

"The infrastructure that the US brings to the CFC is irreplaceable," said Bechtol. "It would take at least eight or 10 years for them - the South Koreans - to be able to do it."

South Korean troops, about 650,000 under arms, facing off against 1.1 million North Koreans might hold their own in a ground war. South Korea is extraordinarily vulnerable, however, to updated ballistic missiles that the North could shower on the South in support of 100,000 fast-moving special operations troops capable of inflicting more than 200,000 casualties on Seoul on the first day of attack.

"That's the threat the ROK military is incapable of meeting," said Bechtol. "You meet it with superior C4I systems and airpower." As for "people who say the North Koreans don't have the capability to attack," he added, "They don't understand North Korea's military."

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.

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