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Talks Over New Korea-U.S. Wartime Command Put on Ice

Ground crew inspect a U.S. B-2 Spirit at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri on Saturday. /Courtesy of U.S. Air Force

Discussions between Seoul and Washington about creating a new Korean-led command structure when Seoul gains full charge of its own troops have been postponed until next year.

Defense Minister Song Young-moo and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis originally planned to hammer out the plan during the annual security consultative meeting in Seoul last Saturday.

President Moon Jae-in is keen for Seoul to gain full control of its own troops in wartime by 2020, but that looks increasingly unlikely as the U.S. drags its heels and tensions with North Korea mount.

At present, the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command is headed by the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea while a Korean officer serves as deputy chief. But under the plan Seoul envisages the top commander would be a South Korean general. It would be unprecedented for the U.S. to put its troops under foreign command in wartime.

Washington’s reluctance to stick with the plan is growing, especially as Seoul wants to maintain the number of U.S. reinforcements that would be sent in a crisis at the current level — in other words, take charge without decreasing its reliance on American forces.

The previous administration agreed with the U.S. to form a new combined command, but the two sides deliberately failed to specify a timeframe for the handover. After Moon was inaugurated, Korea and the U.S. agreed in principle to complete the handover within his single, five-year term.

But already Washington has postponed talks about the new command structure that were to take place during the annual Security Consultative Meeting last Saturday.

A Defense Ministry official insisted Sunday there is “no dispute” about a Korean general heading the new combined command with a U.S. general as deputy. “But discussions have not resolved the composition of the staff and that’s why it wasn’t decided during the SCM,” he said.

Instead, the two defense ministers only agreed to a “speedy” transfer of wartime troop control to Seoul. They also agreed to increase U.S. weapons deployments on the Korean Peninsula and raising a cap on the payload Korea can mount on its missiles.

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