US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo during a visit to the Demilitarized Zone. Photo: US Department of Defense via AFP/Amber I Smith

The US and South Korea have reportedly postponed sensitive talks on changes to the joint military command structure that governs their troops on the peninsula until next year.

President Moon Jae-in and his advisers have been prodding the US to discuss changes in existing procedures that would permit South Korea to gain full control of its own forces by 2020 in the event of war.

Chosunilbo reports that South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo and US Defense Secretary James Mattis had planned to discuss such options when they met in Seoul for bilateral military talks on Saturday. But the South Korean newspaper says any resolution of the issue “looks increasingly unlikely as the US drags its heels and tensions with North Korea mount.”

The so-called Korea-US Combined Forces Command is currently overseen by a US commander with a Korean serving in the second slot as his deputy chief. Chosunilbo says that under Moon’s plan, the top commander of both forces would be a South Korean general. This would be unprecedented as the US, since World War II, has never put its overall forces under foreign command in a conflict.

One big sticking point, according to Chosinilbo, is that South Korea wants to take command of all forces, while holding the US to sending a previously agreed upon number of reinforcements in the event of war. “In other words, take charge without decreasing its reliance on American forces,” the newspaper said.

Pre-emptive strike plan

Japan’s Asahi Shimbun said in a story earlier this month that South Korea is also eyeing a major shift in defense strategy that allows it to carry out pre-emptive strikes against the North and gain direct command of its forces from the US as soon as possible.

The Japanese newspaper says the proposed strategic changes were contained in a South Korean Defense Ministry report submitted to the National Assembly on October 12.

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