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     Mar 21, 2008
Pyongyang cashes in on US row
By Donald Kirk

SEOUL - The Pentagon is battling South Korean defense officials over which side will pay for the cost of transferring US combat troops from the invasion route north of Seoul to a huge new base south of the capital, just as North Korea is revving up the rhetoric over the rightward shift in the breezes from the new government of President Lee Myung-bak.

The simmering quarrel over the cost of the US troop transfer broke into the open when the outgoing US commander in South Korea, General Burton B Bell, told a congressional committee in 

Washington that the cost of relocating US troops to the controversial base Pyongtaek would come to US$10 billion.

Bell has gone under the assumption that the South Korean share would include the cost of moving the vaunted US 2nd Infantry Division from its base at Camp Casey to Pyongtaek. That move has long been viewed with apprehension by South Korean planners since the "2ID" provides the "tripwire" that would delay North Korean troops from advancing south to Seoul, as they did at the outset of the Korean War in June 1950.

South Korea's Defense Ministry says the deal covers relocating the US military headquarters from the sprawling base at Yongsan in central Seoul, while "the US side would pay for the relocation costs of the 2nd Infantry division". The Korean government so far has paid nearly half of the $4.4 billion that it says it owes on base relocation. The Defense Ministry statement, said the quasi-official Yonhap News Agency, amounted to "nearly calling the US commander a wishful thinker".

The US command, embarrassed by the quick retort from the Defense Ministry, issued a statement in Bell's name saying simply, "If the Republic of Korea disagrees," then "it will be necessary for the Korean government to raise the issue with the United States."

The tiff over the cost of moving 2ID has its origin in part in continued resistance to the grand scheme of downsizing the US military presence in South Korea, consolidating at Pyongtaek, about 60 kilometers south of Seoul. The US now has 28,000 troops in Korea, but plans to cut the number to 25,000 by the end of the decade.

Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee on Wednesday listened to an impassioned plea from conservatives calling for cancelation of transfer of what is known as OPCON - operational control in war time - from US to South Korean command four years from now.

The group, which has been campaigning against transfer ever since the plan emerged under Donald Rumsfeld when he was US defense secretary, claimed the transfer "runs counter to most of our people's wishes" and should be "reevaluated" on the basis of analysis of "the level of nuclear threats from North Korea and other security issues on the Korean Peninsula".

Bell, who is to leave his post in June on the way to retirement, has upset some South Korean defense officials in his aggressive efforts at resolving the complicated transfer. The plan calls for dissolution in 2012 of the Combined Forces Command, responsible for taking charge of all troops in case of renewed hostilities.

While walking through a minefield of South Korean sensitivities and complexes about the US role, Bell raised the issue of South Korea's assumption of much of the costs as proof that US forces "are welcome and wanted".

He based that view in large measure on calls by Lee for strengthening the US-Korean military alliance while reversing the negative impact of a decade of left-leaning leadership in which the government has pursued reconciliation with North Korea. He told the British Broadcasting Corporation recently he found the pronouncements of the new government "very positive and reassuring".

In fact, Bell predicted that US President George W Bush would come to Korea "in the relative near term" - that is, after President Lee sees Bush in Washington next month.

The controversy over Bell's remarks comes at an inopportune moment in which North Korea has gradually - and selectively - been responding to the conservative trend of the new government and its more rightist adherents. Although US and South Korean defense officials have differed for years on whether, when and how to relocate troops, and at whose expense, they have for the most part managed to carry out their debates behind closed doors.

The awkwardness of the latest flare-up seemed apparent when the North Korean party mouthpiece, Rodong Sinmun, warned that "cooperation with foreign forces for aggression" would "put North-South relations in the worst crisis once again and lay a stumbling block in the way of the cause of national reunification".

The editorial attack did not mention Lee's policies, but clearly had him in its sights. The impact of "pursuing cooperation with outsiders instead of seeking inter-Korean cooperation", it said, would undermine "the basis and cornerstone for developing North-South relations, leaving the destiny of the nation to the tender mercy of foreign forces".

The government in Pyongyang seemed particularly offended by what it said was stepped-up "propaganda broadcasting" by small anti-communist radio stations in South Korea that had been discouraged, and sometimes suppressed, by previous South Korean governments.

Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) accused the broadcasters of copying Voice of America and Radio Free Asia in messages deemed "anti-unification and anti-nationalistic in nature" - and conducive to "ideological confrontation".

KCNA singled out Christian evangelical programs and two anti-communist stations, North Korea Reform Radio and the Open Radio for North Korea.

North Korea, though, is playing a sophisticated game, modulating such blasts with an appearance of willingness to negotiate on carrying out the agreement reached at six-party talks in February of last year for the North to give up all its nuclear weapons.

The chief US envoy, Christopher Hill, met the chief North Korean envoy, Kim Kye-Gwan, for two days last week in Geneva. Although the talks did not resolve the issue of the North's failure to reveal its entire nuclear inventory or to complete the shutdown of its facilities at Yongbyon, the two sides agreed to keep on talking.

After Hill left one of his top subordinates in Geneva to see about conducting more talks, North Korea said the two sides "decided to continue direct discussion on ways to resolve problems in implementing the October 3 agreement". That was a reference to the deal under which the six nations in the talks came up with what was to have been a specific timetable for North Korea to carry out the February agreement.

The sense in South Korea is that North Korea is still waiting for the US to give up on demanding that North Korea acknowledge the existence of a program for developing warheads with enriched uranium entirely separately from the plutonium process at its nuclear complex at Yongbyon.

"The North Koreans have not stated publicly their position regarding the new government," said Lee Chong-min, professor at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies, but "they realize the US-ROK [Republic of Korea] alliance is back on track."

Much depends on Lee's meeting with Bush, presumably well after the dust settles from Bell's remarks. Why, Professor Lee asked, would North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il "give the Lee government a big boost" before seeing what happens next month?

Hill, in Washington, admitted North Korea still balks at coming up with what the US views as a full accounting. It would not be “politically sustainable", he said, to accept anything less.

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