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[Editorial] Consolidating the alliance

South Korea, U.S. should smooth out pending issues

South Korea and the U.S. signed their new accord Sunday on sharing the cost of stationing American troops here. The renewed Special Measures Agreement, which was inked by Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Sung Kim, is to be submitted to the National Assembly for approval before taking effect.

It will not be easy for the ninth and latest SMA to pass through parliament as some opposition lawmakers oppose the steep increase in Seoul’s share of the costs. Under the renewed five-year pact reached last month after months of negotiations, South Korea is to pay 920 billion won ($849 million) this year, a 5.8 percent rise from last year’s amount.

It still seems necessary and desirable for legislators to approve the accord while resolving to scrutinize how the funds are used, given the measure’s potential for bolstering the alliance between the two countries amid an increasingly volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

What is now needed to further consolidate the footing of the bilateral alliance is to settle differences over two key pending issues ― transferring the wartime operational control to Seoul and revising an accord on nuclear energy cooperation.

Significant moves and signals regarding these matters emerged from Washington last week.

The U.S. Congress approved a bill to extend the existing civil nuclear agreement with South Korea, which is to expire in March, by two years. The legislation will enable the allies to buy time to negotiate a replacement accord.

At a Senate hearing, however, U.S. administration officials suggested that, in the upcoming talks, Washington would continue to reject Seoul’s demand that it be allowed to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium. They reiterated concerns that accepting South Korea’s request would have a negative impact on U.S. efforts toward global nonproliferation.

Still, Washington should pay more heed to Seoul’s urgent calls to upgrade its civilian nuclear program to meet growing domestic energy needs. South Korea may have to make more efforts to secure confidence from the U.S. and other nations in the sincerity of its pursuit of nuclear technology for peaceful use.

On a separate occasion, a senior Pentagon official said Washington “remains committed to a conditions-based transition of operational control” to Seoul. His remarks were seen by experts here as reflecting U.S. flexibility on the timing of the transfer of wartime OPCON.

It is hoped that the two allies will reach an agreement in the first half of this year to delay the transfer scheduled for December 2015 in order to cope with the changing security environment.
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