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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 March 2008, 20:08 GMT
New dawn for US-S Korean military ties
By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

The commander of US forces in South Korea has told the BBC he welcomes plans to strengthen the military alliance between the two countries. In an exclusive interview, General Burwell Baxter Bell describes the proposals for a closer partnership as "positive and reassuring".

General Burwell Baxter Bell (file picture)
Gen Bell commands a force of around 28,000

For more than half a century, the strategic relationship between the two countries has meant that there are large numbers of US soldiers deployed in support of South Korean troops.

Today, Gen Bell commands a force of around 28,000.

But many observers believe the alliance has been tested and strained in recent years, as two successive liberal governments in Seoul pursued closer ties with Pyongyang - the so-called "sunshine policy".

This strategy of engagement tried to coax the North to reform by offering large amounts of aid and assistance.

But the parallel approach to secure nuclear disarmament through tough-talking international negotiations often left Washington and Seoul speaking with different voices.

US-centric

Now South Korea's newly elected president, conservative Lee Myung-bak, has made it clear that while he wants to continue the efforts towards rapprochement, he wants to see more concrete results in return.

Join US-South Korea military exercise in Seoul on 6 March 2008
North Korea has condemned joint US-South Korean military exercises

And he says he will once again place the US alliance at the centre of his foreign policy vision.

"Certainly the pronouncements of the new government here, with respect to the alliance, I think are very positive and reassuring and I know my government is heartened by it," Gen Bell told the BBC.

"I look forward to a strengthening of the bond... I know that President Lee is going to the United States in April and I suspect that President Bush will come to Korea in the relative near term," he added.

Mr Lee will become the first South Korean president to visit Camp David.

The new administration has also begun to make good on a promise to take a tougher line towards the issue of human rights in North Korea.

In a recent speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the South Korean deputy foreign minister called on the North to take action to improve its humanitarian record.

The statement has infuriated Pyongyang.

Transparency effort

But the warming relations between its two historical foes will be adding to the North's sense of concern.

As always, it has once again been heavily critical of the most recent US-South Korean military training, which has involved manoeuvres by a US aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

We inform the North Koreans formally before this exercise, like we do every year, to make sure that there is no misunderstanding about what we're doing to defend the Republic of Korea against aggression
Gen Bell

But Gen Bell rejects the criticism.

"These are not aggressive exercises and North Korea knows that," he said.

"North Korea also exercises vigorously, it has just concluded a very significant winter training exercise, not publicised by North Korea and certainly no reporters were able to go up and cover that.

"Meanwhile here in South Korea, we are almost totally transparent," he added.

"We inform the North Koreans formally before this exercise, like we do every year, to make sure that there is no misunderstanding about what we're doing to defend the Republic of Korea against aggression."

Protests

Some of the military exercises last week were the targets of protests by small groups of South Koreans who want the US military to withdraw altogether, believing their presence antagonises the North.

But Lee Myung-bak made his foreign policy goals clear during the election campaign, and he won by a landslide.

Two weeks ago, the New York Philharmonic concert in Pyongyang demonstrated a softer side to American influence.

But the reality is that it took place inside a still nuclear-armed state, with disarmament negotiations at a standstill.

For now, it seems that it is the US military, not its musicians, that is back centre stage on the Korean peninsular.

Presidents Lee and Bush, according to Gen Bell, will make certain of that.

"I believe these two gentlemen will indeed through their proclamations make certain that this alliance remains strong and viable throughout this century, and even beyond," he said.



SEE ALSO
N Korea condemns joint war games
03 Aug 07 |  Asia-Pacific
N Korea condemns US-South drills
22 Aug 06 |  Asia-Pacific

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