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Lee, Obama agree to delay wartime control transfer

Obama vows to submit ‘adjusted’ FTA to Congress by early 2011

TORONTO -- Seoul and Washington agreed Saturday to postpone the U.S. transfer of wartime operational control to South Korea until 2015, given the volatile security situation on the Korean Peninsula with North Korea’s continued military provocations.

President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed in a summit here to reschedule the OPCON handover to Dec. 1, 2015, three years later than previously planned. The two are in Toronto to attend the G20 summit.

Obama also promised to submit the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement to the U.S. Congress in “a few months” from December after discussing necessary “adjustments,” stating that it will not be a “renegotiation.”

The decision to delay the OPCON transition “reflects the current security conditions on the Korean Peninsula and will strengthen the alliance of the two nations,” Lee told reporters after the summit.
President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama hold a summit in Toronto on Saturday. Yonhap News
President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama hold a summit in Toronto on Saturday. Yonhap News

Obama, standing next to Lee, also said rescheduling the OPCON transfer date was “appropriate.”

South Korea has peacetime control of its forces, but the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command is to take over in the event of war. In 2007, the allies agreed that Seoul would regain its wartime OPCON on April 17, 2012. Seoul asked for the delay.

Seoul and Washington reached a consensus on the need for more time for the OPCON transition after North Korea conducted long-range missile and nuclear tests last year, according to Kim Sung-hwan, top presidential aide on foreign affairs and security.

“Prior to regaining wartime OPCON, it is important for us to be more capable of precision targeting, acquiring military information on our own and to complete a command, control and communications system,” Kim said.

“An operations command for ground forces will be launched in 2015 and the relocation of U.S. base from Yongsan to Pyeongtaek is expected to be completed by 2015.”

As for the FTA, Obama said he ordered the U.S. trade representative to begin a working-level review of possible “adjustments,” if necessary to “push through the Congress,” and mentioned a specific timeline for his submission of the pact to the Congress.

“Today I indicated to President Lee that it is time that our U.S. trade representative work very closely with his counterpart from the ROK to make sure that we set the cap, a road so that I can present this FTA to Congress,” Obama said.

“We are going to do it in a methodical fashion, I want to make sure that everything is lined up properly by the time I visit Korea in November, and then in the few months that follow that, I intend to present it to Congress.”

Lee welcomed Obama’s “constructive proposal.”

“We very much welcome and thank President Obama for proposing a date for us to look forward to, and we will work towards that date and objective in the weeks and months ahead,” Lee said.

The Korea-U.S. FTA was signed in 2007 but is yet to be approved by their legislators. There has been strong opposition, mostly from U.S. automakers.

Obama made it clear that it will not be a “renegotiation,” South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon told reporters.

Lee also thanked Obama for Washington’s firm commitment to the defense of Korea and explained that Seoul’s punitive actions against Pyongyang were part of efforts to seek genuine change in Pyongyang’s attitude to take inter-Korean relations to a new level.

Tensions escalated on the peninsula following the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan’s sinking on March 26, which a Seoul-led multinational investigation concluded was due to Pyongyang’s torpedo attack. Forty-six South Korean seamen were killed in the naval disaster. Seoul has referred the case to the U.N. Security Council.

Lee and Obama agreed that the Cheonan case was North Korea’s clear violation of the 1953 armistice and the U.N. Charter, Lee’s office said.

Obama stressed the North should be “held to account” for the attack, reaffirming Washington’s firm defense commitment for Seoul.

“There has to be consequences for such irresponsible behavior,” Obama said.

“We stand foursquare behind” South Korea, he added.

Lee and Obama expect the first meeting of their defense and foreign affairs ministers next month to serve as an important turning point for the development of bilateral alliance, Lee’s aides said.

By Kim So-hyun
Korea Herald correspondent (
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