The transfer of U.S. military bases to the South Koreans is on track and going smoothly, U.S. officials said as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his top military leaders gathered Tuesday for two days of meetings with their Seoul counterparts here.
So far, 23 of the U.S. camps — vestiges of the 1950-53 Korean War — have been transferred as part of a broader plan to have Seoul assume more responsibility for its own defenses and take over its own wartime command by 2012.
While some South Koreans, including a few protesters who met Gates upon his arrival, would like to see the transfer sooner, both sides have agreed that it would take until 2012 to get all of the needed equipment and training in place.
Senior U.S. defense officials traveling with Gates said this week that the South is not yet prepared for the transfer, but is on pace to be ready by 2012.
Still, just 50 kilometers north of here, the guarded, barbed-wire fence — the DMZ — still divides the country from its northern neighbor. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the border Monday, after he arrived for the defense meetings.
The developments in the North are also a likely topic for the defense officials.
Just this week, north of that DMZ, North Korea began its long-demanded work to disable its nuclear facility at Yongbyon. The move is a result of the six-nation talks, and would be the most significant step the communist country has taken to scale back its nuclear program.
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October of last year.
The North has promised to disable the reactor at Yongbyon by the end of the year in exchange for energy aid and other political concessions from the other five nations: the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and Russia. One of those concessions that has sparked some debate is the possibility that North Korea could eventually be taken off the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism.
Removal from the list has long been a goal of Pyongyang, but the North would have to meet requirements stipulated under U.S. law.
Gates said Tuesday that the meetings in Seoul will largely focus on the progress of the military transition here from U.S. to South Korea.
About 29,000 U.S. troops are still deployed in the South as a legacy of the Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty. Under the current military arrangements, the U.S. commander, currently U.S. Army Gen. B.B. Bell, would lead all allied forces under a joint command in the event of a renewed conflict.
Another likely topic for the defense officials is the continued deployment of South Korean troops in Iraq. There is a plan to cut the current number — 1,200 — in half and extend the deployment for another year. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has said the extension would boost his country's alliance with the U.S., but others in the country are opposed.