SEOUL — South Korea could have independent wartime command of its own troops as early as 2009, Gen. B.B. Bell, U.S.-South Korea Combined Forces commander, said Thursday — the first time he’s announced a solid timeline.

“If a decision by our governments is made to proceed now, it is my military assessment that such a transition can be achieved … over a three-year period of focused organizational activity, training and exercise,” Bell said Thursday morning during a speech to the Joongang Ilbo Unification Research Culture Institute. U.S. Forces Korea officials provided a copy of the speech to Stars and Stripes.

South Korea requested wartime operational command of its forces in October 2005, launching joint studies. On July 13, Bell told the Korean National Assembly’s Security Forum that it looked as though the best idea would be to dissolve his Combined Forces Command and create two independent commands. In the new model, USFK would offer its air and naval powers in a supporting role to South Korea.

Under current arrangements, Bell directs U.S. and South Korean combat operations here. He stressed during Thursday’s speech, however, that he reports to the presidents of both the United States and South Korea in that role.

“Given Korea’s economic, military, and social advancements, stature, and stated desires, the expeditious transition to independent command is proper and indeed very achievable,” he said.

He added that the South Korean and U.S. governments would decide the exact date in which to disestablish the Combined Forces Command. The CFC was established on Nov. 7, 1978, with the role of deterring and, if needed, defeating outside aggression. Bell’s deputy is a four-star South Korean general.

Conservative groups have blasted South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun for requesting wartime command of the nation’s forces, saying it will threaten security on the peninsula.

“For those of you who see this as a weakening of the alliance,” Bell said during the speech, “let me say this again: Regardless of the command arrangements and as long as we are welcome and wanted in your nation, the United Nations will remain a committed and faithful ally.”

The issue is expected to be discussed during an October security consultative meeting in Washington, D.C.

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