WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States on Thursday agreed to maintain wartime control of South Korean troops in the event of an attack by North Korea for the foreseeable future, delaying the transfer of authority to Seoul that had been scheduled for 2015.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that delaying the handoff "will ensure that when the transfer does occur, Korean forces have the necessary defensive capabilities to address an intensifying North Korean threat."
The agreement to delay the transfer has been discussed for more than a year and comes at the request of the Seoul government. There is no longer a deadline for the transfer; instead, it will be based on the progress of the South Korean military and the ongoing situation there, including tensions with North Korea and its ongoing nuclear ambitions.
Hagel made the announcement Thursday alongside South Korea Defense Minister Han Min Koo at the Pentagon. And he reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to maintain the number and structure of U.S. forces in Korea.
Han, through an interpreter, added that he believes the security situation in the region is more precarious than ever, and said that the continued U.S. and South Korea force status will enable them to deter North Korean provocations.
Hagel, in a visit to South Korea in October, said the timing of the transfer would be based on military conditions.
The U.S. has kept combat forces on the Korean Peninsula since the Korean War fighting halted on July 27, 1953, with the signing of an armistice. There are still about 28,000 American troops based in the South.
For years, however, the U.S. has tried to wean South Korea off its dependence on the American military by setting a target date for the transfer.
The armistice agreement itself did not envision a long-term U.S. troop presence. Instead, it recommended that within three months a high-level political conference be convened to negotiate the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea and "the peaceful settlement of the Korean question." That has never happened.
The South in 1994 took peacetime control of its forces from the U.S. four-star general who heads a South Korean-U.S. Combined Forces Command, but the American general remained responsible for wartime control. In 2006 the two countries agreed that South Korea would assume wartime control of its forces in April 2012.
In June 2010, after South Korea accused the North of torpedoing and sinking the South Korean ship Cheonan, Seoul and Washington agreed to delay the handover of wartime operational control until December 2015.
Few experts or officials advocate even a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. Many believe that U.S. wartime control of the military there provides a deterrent to North Korea, particularly as it pursues its nuclear ambitions.