SEOUL — U.S. troops stationed in South Korea were forced this year to scrap a contingency plan for the collapse of Kim Jong Il's regime in North Korea because of objections by Seoul, the South Korean government said Friday.
Seoul's rejection of the classified plan, which was supposed to be developed jointly by the U.S. and South Korean militaries, is the latest sign of tension in the alliance.
The strategy, code-named Op-Plan 5029, mapped out military responses in the event that Kim suddenly lost power and the communist country started to come apart.
South Korean officials apparently feared that the United States would take command in case of a power vacuum and that it would hastily send its troops toward Pyongyang, perhaps under the flag of the same U.N. command that waged the 1950-1953 Korean War.
South Korea, which considers the entire Korean peninsula its rightful territory, wants to take the lead if the North Korean system collapses.
"Aspects of the plan could be a serious obstacle to exercising South Korea's sovereignty," South Korea's National Security Council said Friday in a terse statement confirming that the plan had been scrapped. It was canceled in January, but the move was confirmed only Friday after leaks appeared in the South Korean press. The South Korean Defense Ministry also confirmed the cancellation.
U.S. officials in Seoul declined to comment.
"We don't discuss operational matters," said Lt. Col. Deborah Bertrand, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces in South Korea.
Derek J. Mitchell, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the scrapped plan was supposed to address the possibility of a mass exodus of refugees and securing North Korea's nuclear arsenal.
"In the aftermath of Iraq, I think they felt we might be too eager to go in there [North Korea] and take control and that perhaps the Bush administration is looking for an excuse to effect regime change," Mitchell said. "The essential trust that should underlie an alliance with so much at stake is lacking."
With South Korea the world's 12th-largest economy, some in its government bristle at clauses in the defense treaty that would allow the U.S. to take command in another war on the Korean peninsula. Disagreements about command structure have been a source of tension in the U.S.-South Korean military alliance.
Washington and Seoul also have sharply contrasting visions of how to deal with North Korea as it plows ahead with its nuclear weapons program.
President Bush says he has no plans to invade but has made no secret of his loathing for Kim Jong Il and his preference for a change of regime. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is anxious to avoid a collapse that could send North Korean refugees streaming across the border.
"The possibility of North Korea's collapse is very low," Roh said Wednesday during a visit to Germany, according to his office here. "And we don't have any intention to encourage it, either."
After visiting Berlin, Roh said he did not envision anything like the collapse of the Berlin Wall on the Korean peninsula.
German reunification resulted in "large costs and many aftereffects," Roh said. "I believe unification of the Koreas will proceed in a very stable process after predictable stages."
The decision to pull out of the plan won praise from the South Korean daily Hankyoreh, which in an editorial Friday said: "Waiting for the North Korean system to collapse or looking like you are trying to make that happen does not in any way help the work of unification."
South Korean officials in recent months have also publicly expressed fears that the U.S. could drag the country into a conflict with China.