NEW YORK (Reuters) - South Korea is ready and able to take over wartime command of its troops from the United States by 2012, despite the misgivings of some South Korean politicians, the top U.S. general in South Korea said on Monday.
South Korea technically remains at war with North Korea because the 1950-1953 war ended in a truce instead of a peace treaty.
At that time, Seoul ceded wartime command of its military to U.S.-led U.N. forces that helped fight off a North Korean invasion. Seoul assumed peacetime command over its 650,000 troops in 1994.
After several years of negotiations, the United States and South Korea agreed last year that Seoul would take wartime control of its forces by 2012.
On Monday, Gen. B.B. Bell told a gathering of the Korea Society the transfer of command would strengthen the alliance between the United States and South Korea by restoring the “ultimate expression of sovereignty” to Seoul.
Such a transfer should not be seen as a move by Washington to reduce its commitments in the region, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea said.
“We trust the Korean general officers to lead the theater and battle control operations,” Bell said. “The competency of their flag officers is second to none. ... It would not be wise for the North Koreans to test that.”
The planned transfer of wartime command comes as the United States has cut the number of troops it has stationed in South Korea to about 28,000 from about 37,000 earlier in this decade.
The United States is also moving its remaining forces away from the front lines along the border with North Korea, leading to some speculation in the South Korean media that the United States is reducing its commitment to the alliance.
The United States has denied any intention of reducing its commitment to the defense of South Korea.
However, some aides to South Korean President-elect Lee Myung-bak’s have called for a review of the planned transfer of control to ensure South Korean security priorities are met.
“I see no military rationale for (a renegotiation),” Bell said.
The growing strength and capabilities of the South Korean military meant the allied forces were in a much stronger position to fight off any conventional attack by North Korea than in the last 30 years, he said.
“(North Korea) has a powerful military in my assessment. However, I am not convinced the North Koreans pose the same risk to South Korea as they did 25 to 30 years ago,” Bell said.
Editing by Daniel Trotta