General sees another N. Korea nuclear test, hits defense hurdles
SEOUL — The senior U.S. commander in South Korea on Jan. 9 said North Korea will likely conduct another nuclear test, and he alsoventedhisfrustrationatarange of issues bedeviling Washington’s military alliance with Seoul.
“They have self-proclaimed their possession of nuclear weapons, and there is no reason to believe that at some time in the future, when it servestheirpurposes,thattheywon’t test another one,” Gen. Burwell B. Bell said of North Korea, which detonatedanucleardeviceonOct9.“So I suspect some day they will.”
The general, speaking to reporters,declinedtodiscusswhether a test was imminent, citing confidentiality of intelligence.
ABC News two weeks ago reportedPyongyangmightbepreparingforanothertest.Citingunnamed U.S. defense officials, the network said the moves were similar to steps taken before the October blast.
Top U.S. and South Korean officials have dismissed the speculation, saying there is no indication such a development was imminent.
Gen.Bellalsoexpressedconcerns about the relocation of the headquarters of the U.S. forces in South Korea, the transfer of wartime command of South Korean forces to South Korean leadership, and budgetary shortfalls.
“ImustadmitthatIwassurprised when I read local press reports that [aSouthKorean]governmentofficial stated the relocation of U.S. forces would not occur until after 2013,” he said. “This was news to me, and not at all reflective of the agreement we have with [South Korea] to achieve the move by 2008.”
Yongsan garrison, home to 6,500 troops and 8,000 civilians — family membersanddefensecontractors— has been a bone of contention in the alliance for years. Talks to relocate thecentralSeoulbasehavebeenongoingsince1990,butonlyin2004did thetwocountriessignanagreement to relocate it to the city of Pyeongtaek,55milessouthofthecapital,by 2008.
Construction of the new base is underway,butlastmonth,localpress reports, quoting an unnamed South Korean government official, stated the move would be delayed until 2013.Seoulofficialshavenotrefuted the reports.
Noting that many U.S. personnel and their families were living in dilapidated facilities at Yongsan, Gen. Bellsaidthatwiththemoveplanned, he could not construct new facilities on the current base.
The proposal to transfer wartime command of South Korean forces is caught in a similar timeline dispute. U.S. military officials say the transfer of command can be achieved by 2009, but the South Korean side wants to delay it until 2012.
Gen. Bell said future U.S. force commanders would play a “supporting role” to South Korean commanders, and hinted that the trans- fer of wartime control of troops needs more serious attention than it has so far received.
“The worst things we can do, within minutes, is to transfer commandbackandforth,”hesaid.“That would be unacceptable.”
Gen.Bellalsoaddressedshortfalls inSouthKoreanfinancialsupportto fund the ongoing consolidation of U.S.troopsacrosstheKoreanPeninsula. The U.S. force in Korea has beenshrinking—from37,500troops in2003,to29,500today,andtherewill be 25,000 in 2008. Most of the troops are moving to new, less intrusive base areas.
In negotiations, Seoul had agreed to pay 44 percent of U.S. troops’ consolidation costs — $886 million. However, what Seoul finally offered was $772 million, leaving a shortfall of more than $100 million.
“I’mbeingputintoabadposition, fromapolicyperspective,ofnothaving the money to do what our two governmentstoldmetodo,”thegeneral said, adding that he would need to make “significant” cuts in U.S. forces’ programs.
Gen. Bell’s outspoken tone surprised some analysts.
“Clearly,Washingtonisexpecting Koreans to take greater responsibilityfortheirdefense,andbehavehonorably in the negotiation process as that happens,” said Michael Breen, a Seoul-based author of several books about the peninsula and a longtime Korea watcher.
Meanwhile,theoveralldeterioration in the alliance dismays local conservatives.
“The sharp rise in anti-Americanism here has partly been instigatedbyNorthKoreanpropaganda, but the behavior of our government in the recent two to three years has been rather out of the ordinary in its abilitytobediplomatic,”saidLeeInho,aprofessoratMyongjiUniversity.
“Conservatives are concerned here: Even if we are critical of some policylinespursuedbytheBushadministration, we do not want to jettisonthealliancecompletely,”hesaid.