SEOUL — Despite a desire by officials here to assume greater responsibility for the defense of their country, the United States and South Korea agreed Friday to leave a U.S. commander in charge of their combined armies in the event of a war on the Korean peninsula.
With steady improvements made by South Korea's military and the nation's emergence as an economic power, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said recently that his country was ready to take on more control of its armed forces, and suggested altering the current arrangement that put South Korean forces under U.S. command during wartime.
After discussions Friday between Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Kwang Ung, both sides agreed that the United States would retain "operational control" during a conflict. Yet they raised the possibility that command authority could change in the future.
"As the capabilities of the Republic of Korea grow, obviously they will assume more and more responsibility as they have been doing in recent years," Rumsfeld said after the meeting. "As that happens in an orderly way there will be adjustments in the command relationship, and those are the kinds of things allies discuss."
U.S. officials said there was no firm timetable for an eventual transfer of wartime authority, and that Washington would welcome serious negotiations on the matter.
"They're pushing on an open door," said a senior defense official who briefed reporters after the meeting. "It isn't the United States that's doing any foot-dragging on this."
In the joint statement, the United States also reaffirmed its pledge to shield South Korea under a "nuclear umbrella" -- a guarantee meant to deter an attack by North Korea across the demilitarized zone separating the two countries. The United States has a similar pledge in its alliance with Japan.
The United States has maintained a large troop presence in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953, but in recent years the Pentagon has begun withdrawing troops from the country as part of a larger effort to reposition its forces around the globe.
The Pentagon wants to have 25,000 troops in South Korea by the end of 2008, compared to 37,500 last year, a reduction in forces that U.S. commanders say is made possible by the growing capability of South Korea's 690,000 troops.
Army Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, the top U.S. commander in South Korea, said Thursday that the South Korean military has begun to take over several combat missions previously carried out by U.S. troops.
Such developments, LaPorte said, were a "natural evolution" of an alliance than has existed for a half-century.
The alliance has become strained in recent years, in part over differing perceptions in Washington and Seoul as to the threat posed by North Korea, and the best way to dismantle Pyongyang's burgeoning nuclear program.
LaPorte said that over the last year there had been a "noticeable reduction" of hostile incidents along the demilitarized zone and in the coastal waters off the Korean peninsula. He said this might be a conscious attempt by Pyongyang to reduce tensions amid diplomatic efforts aimed at halting North Korea's nuclear program.
LaPorte also said that the North Korean military had recently scaled-back military exercises and large-scale troop movements in an effort to conserve fuel.