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
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
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
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
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
Hill, in Washington,
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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