SEOUL, South Korea – Thousands of South Koreans, including former defense ministers wearing their old military uniforms, rallied Friday in Seoul demanding the president halt moves to retake wartime command of the country's military from the United States.
"Stop the plot to destroy the Korea-U.S. alliance!" some of the protesters chanted during a rally in front of the city's central train station.
Over their heads flew balloons strung with placards bearing the images of the South Korean and the U.S. national flags side-by-side.
Police said about 5,000 people, many of them elderly veterans, turned out for the demonstration that underlined the worsening divide in South Korean society over the government's push for the return of wartime command.
South Korea transferred control of its forces to a U.S.-led U.N. command in 1950 that helped the country repel invading communists from North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War. While peacetime control of the military was given to the South in 1994, the U.S. takes control of the South's military if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea and the U.S. have been in talks on the issue since Seoul formally proposed taking over the command last year. The two sides are expected to draw a roadmap for the proposed transfer when their defense chiefs hold annual talks in October in Washington.
The issue has recently become a hot topic in security-sensitive South Korea — which faces the communist North across the world's most heavily fortified border — as critics stepped up their campaign against the government's move.
Among those speaking publicly against the plan have been many of the country's former defense ministers, who claim the command transfer is premature and would unravel the country's alliance with Washington and undercut deterrence against North Korea.
"I oppose taking over the operational command. It's premature," Lee Sang-hoon, who served as the country's defense minister in 1988-1990, said at Friday's rally.
President Roh rejected the criticism this week, saying the South's military is strong enough to take over the command anytime, and leaving it with the U.S. is a slight to national sovereignty. His blunt rebuff further fueled the debate.
Officials say Washington also supports handing over the command to the South.
About 29,500 U.S. troops are now stationed across South Korea as a deterrence against the North. The two Koreas are still technically at war since the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The U.S. troops are scheduled to be reduced to 25,000 by 2008.