SEOUL — South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun’s declaration that U.S. troops on the peninsula should not be deployed to “regional disputes” in Northeast Asia without consent from the South Korean government has stirred a media furor over the comments and the future role of U.S. troops here.

“Our nation will not be embroiled in any conflict in Northeast Asia against our will. This is an absolutely firm principle we cannot and will not yield under any circumstance,” Roh said, according to the transcript of a speech delivered at the Republic of Korea Air Force Academy commencement ceremony Tuesday.

The comments — translated by South Korean media outlets in varying degrees of specifics — were splashed across front pages Wednesday and repeated on news broadcasts. The remarks were taken as addressing the possibility U.S. Forces Korea could take on more regional missions in the years to come.

“The U.S. forces in Korea are very important for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and they will continue to play such a role in the future,” Roh said, according to the transcript. “There has been a diversity of voices worrying about possible expansion of the roles of the U.S. Forces Korea. This has to do with what is called strategic flexibility.”

Several media reports quoted unnamed “senior officials” as saying the speech was meant to lay out flatly a demand that the United States get South Korean consent before deploying any USFK forces off the peninsula.

In recent months, U.S. officials have touted the transformation of U.S. forces worldwide into lighter, more maneuverable regional forces, able to deploy on short notice. The remaining pieces of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea currently are undergoing a transformation to a Unit of Employment (UEX), combining the roles of a division and corps.

U.S. military officials acknowledged Wednesday that a regional force was one of the topics discussed at military talks between the two nations but declined to comment specifically on Roh’s speech. U.S. diplomatic officials also downplayed the speech, saying it was nothing they had not heard from the South Korean side before.

Regional roles for both U.S. and South Korean forces have been addressed in recent months. For instance, in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday in Washington, U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Leon J. LaPorte praised South Korea’s military contributions to U.S.-led missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and in tsunami relief.

A South Korean Ministry of National Defense spokesman said Wednesday the MND has received no feedback from USFK on the speech.

But Lt. Col. Kim Nak-jung said, “We want [Roh’s] statement to be taken literally. The speech expressed strongly the will of Korea to halt conflicts that might [affect] the Korean Peninsula. And what we continue to look forward to is to keep discussing the matter with USFK.”

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