SEOUL — Twenty retired South Korean generals have asked the presidents of the United States and South Korea to reconsider dissolving the countries’ joint warfighting command, saying it would weaken their country’s ability to defend itself against nuclear-armed North Korea.

In a letter sent to President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak last week, the generals said keeping the current Combined Forces Command would allow South Korea to respond as swiftly as possible to a provocation by North Korea.

“The unity of command is one of the most important factors in the battlefield,” said retired CFC deputy commander Gen. Kim Jae-chang, one of several retired generals who co-wrote the letter. He said the CFC is the most developed joint command system in the world and is South Korea’s best hope for defending against an external threat.

Kim said the generals want the two presidents to discuss the issue when they meet in Seoul on Nov. 19.

The CFC is scheduled to dissolve on April 17, 2012, and be replaced by separate U.S. and South Korean commands. After that date, South Korea would assume control of all U.N. military forces in the country during a war, including the 28,000-strong U.S. military presence.

Kim said having dual commands isn’t effective in modern warfare and would create a “serious outcome” if North Korea launched a surprise attack on the South, as it did in 1950 to start the Korean War.

“We need a commander, one commander, to react, to assess the situation immediately and to decide the best course of action and to react immediately,” he said.

While South Korea is capable of leading U.N. troops during war, Kim said, the retired generals want the CFC to remain intact until the threat of an attack from North Korea disappears. All who signed the letter are former deputy commanders of the CFC — the highest-ranking South Korean general position in the current command structure — and members of the Korea Retired Generals and Admirals Association.

Kim said the letter contends that tension between North and South Korea will reach its highest point in the next five to 10 years as leadership in the communist regime changes. Kim Jong Il is widely believed to be preparing one of his sons to succeed him, and questions about the elder Kim’s health have arisen in the past year and a half.

More than 600,000 active-duty troops from both countries fall under the authority of the CFC, which is led by a U.S. four-star general, with a South Korean four-star general as deputy commander. In wartime, those numbers could swell with U.S. troops from outside the peninsula and the activation of 3.5 million South Korean reservists, according to U.S. Forces Korea.

“It is very well organized — I think better than NATO in Europe,” Kim Jae-chang said.

Kim said the threat from North Korea has grown more serious since South Korea and the U.S. set the 2012 date for the transfer of operational control, often referred to as OPCON transfer.

“The current North Korea situation is very unstable, and in such a condition, I really want the two leaders to renew this agreement,” he said, citing North Korea’s second nuclear test in May.

A spokesman for South Korea’s president said Lee had received the letter, though he did not know if the two presidents would discuss it during their visit next week.

A spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said Tuesday that both the U.S. and South Korea will continue to support the 2012 OPCON transfer date.

U.S. Forces Korea declined to comment.

Current USFK and CFC commander Gen. Walter Sharp said in August that South Korea would be ready to direct a war against North Korea in 2012 if hostilities erupted.

“We still have a ways to go — we completely realize that — but we have 2½ years to get it right,” he said after an exercise testing South Korea’s ability to lead troops in wartime scenarios.

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