SEOUL — A former prime minister of South Korea told a group of American and South Korean defense specialists Monday that the alliance between the United States and South Korea is important but has weakened in recent years.

Lee Hong-koo, prime minister from December 2004 to December 2005, said the United States’ “preoccupation” with Iraq and the Middle East has undermined U.S. efforts to understand Asia’s importance.

He made the comments during a session of the Republic of Korea-U.S. Defense Analysis Seminar, held every two years in South Korea.

More than 70 specialists from the two countries are attending the three-day seminar, held at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses near Korea University.

Lee said a meeting later this week in Washington between President Bush and new South Korean president Lee Myung-bak is important to developing the relationship between the two countries and will be a “clear signal” to North Korea to lessen its nuclear posture.

Lee also was South Korea’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1998 to 2000, and is now chairman of the Seoul Forum for International Affairs.

U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. B.B. Bell, who spoke during the opening session of the seminar earlier Monday morning, said South Korea is “absolutely ready” to take over wartime control of all troops stationed in the country.

“It is simply no longer necessary or appropriate for an American commander to lead the Korean military during wartime,” he said.

Bell said the two militaries have the “most sophisticated and mature exercise program in the world.”

The countries also have a new five-year exercise program that will include a certification exercise for both militaries before the U.S. transfers wartime operational control to South Korea on April 12, 2012.

“This new military command structure is doctrinally sound, normal and appropriate,” Bell said.

Lee Sang-hee, South Korea’s minister of national defense, spoke after Bell and said militaries are relying less on conventional weapons and the physical prowess of its troops, and more on their elite forces and technology that minimizes mass destruction and hurts the enemy’s core.

“The face of warfare is rapidly changing,” he said.

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