S Korea can take wartime command in 3 yrs-Roh
SEOUL, Aug 9 (Reuters) South Korea can take over wartime command of its troops from the United States as early as within three years, President Roh Moo-hyun said today.
Roh also said there could be additional cuts to the number of US troops once the command transfer was completed, but it would not lead to a complete pullout of the US military.
Seoul has faced some criticism at home for a possible loss of national security through the move but has said it would be in the country's best interests to have wartime control of its troops.
''It can be done anytime between 2009 and 2012,'' Roh was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency in an interview. ''Our defence capabilities are strengthening steadily.'' South Korea ceded command of defences on its side of the peninsula to US-led UN forces during the 1950-1953 Korean War. South Korea, still technically at war with the North, obtained peacetime command over its troops in 1994.
The United States currently has about 30,000 troops in South Korea to support the country's more than 650,000 troops.
North Korea has 1.2 million troops, making it the world's most heavily militarised state relative to population.
Roh said South Korea was be able to take over wartime operations control of its military immediately if necessary. ''But it is because we are trying to make the military one of the best in the world that we have set the goal of 2012,'' Roh said.
Actual takeover of the command will likely be in 2010 or 2011 when US military bases now spread out in the country will be consolidated in an area south of Seoul, he said.
A US Defence official said earlier this week the United States and South Korea will overhaul a military relationship that stretches back more than 50 years by giving Seoul the lead in any wartime perations.
Newspapers and former South Korean defence ministers have criticised Seoul for pushing too hard for the shift. They said the move could hasten a pullout of U.S. troops in South Korea.
''The government has never explained to the public in detail what wartime operational control means and how it is exercised, even as it is trying to topple one of the pillars of national security,'' the daily Chosun Ilbo, a frequent critic of the government, wrote in an editorial today.
Roh said the takeover of the command would not lead to an erosion of South Korea's alliance with the United States and it would help ensure continued stability on the Korean peninsula.
''In future military talks with the North to ease tensions and build confidence, the South Korean military must have wartime command in order to be able to take the initiative,'' Roh said.
Details of the new relationship should be finalised in October. The United States wants South Korea to assume the lead in war operations by 2009, but Seoul has pushed for 2012.
REUTERS DLA KP2025