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South Korean artillery soldiers take positions during an exercise against possible North Korean attacks, in Paju, South Korea, near the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, Monday. South Korean artillery soldiers take positions during an exercise against possible North Korean attacks, in Paju, South Korea, near the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, Monday.
South Korean artillery soldiers take positions during an exercise against possible North Korean attacks, in Paju, South Korea, near the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, Monday. South Korean artillery soldiers take positions during an exercise against possible North Korean attacks, in Paju, South Korea, near the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, Monday. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

SEOUL — The sinking of the Cheonan has cost 46 South Korean lives, pushed the country Monday to sever trade with North Korea, and shattered always-tenuous relations.

But there could be another casualty: The plan for South Korea to take command of its own troops during a possible war.

The United States and South Korea agreed to the plan, called OPCON, in 2007. It currently would give South Korea operational control of its troops beginning April 17, 2012, a responsibility that now falls to the top U.S. general in the country.

But a growing number of critics, including some former South Korean military officials, have raised questions about whether the country’s military capabilities — from its command-and-control systems to its missile defenses — are advanced enough to defend against a North Korean attack.

The March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, which a multinational investigation team last week said was the result of a North Korean torpedo attack, has bolstered their case and may hasten a decision to delay the transfer, according to several experts.

“I think what this does show is the North Korean threat remains ominous, and North Korea’s capability for using [nonconventional] forces continues to be a threat to South Korea,” said Bruce Bechtol, an international relations professor at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va., and author of “Red Rogue: The Persistent Challenge of North Korea.”

He said the torpedoing of the Cheonan took months of planning, and was probably carried out by North Korean reconnaissance forces under the direction of someone close to leader Kim Jong Il.

“There is probably not a ship in the North Korean navy that is as capable as the Cheonan,” said Bechtol. “That doesn’t matter. They sank it.”

U.S. Forces Korea said Monday it had not received a request from South Korea to delay the transfer, and any discussions about possible changes to the transfer would be handled by the White House. Officials there said they had no comment on the possibility of a transfer delay.

Many critics, including a group of retired South Korean generals who wrote a letter to the presidents of South Korea and the U.S. in the fall, say OPCON will destroy the unity of command between the two militaries. The change in command structure would complicate a military relationship between the U.S. and South Korea that would already be strained under battle conditions, they say.

Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation in Washington, said the sinking of the Cheonan will strengthen political support in South Korea for a delay.

But both countries will be careful to separate the Cheonan from a delay in OPCON transfer, which otherwise could be seen as a victory of sorts for North Korea, he said.

“Arguably, the reason for doing the shift would be that South Korea’s own vulnerability and unreadiness has been exposed,” he said. “That’s not a desirable political rational.”

Nicholas Szechenyi, an expert on northeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the situation on the Korean peninsula has changed since the U.S. and South Korean governments agreed to a date for the OPCON transfer.

Not everyone, however, believes the transfer will be delayed.

“There’s been a number of opportunities for the South Korean government to step up and say, essentially, ‘This idea was the previous government’s idea. It’s a good idea, we want to carry through with it, but 2012 is not the ideal year to do that. Let’s push it,’ ” said Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington. “They haven’t done that.”

But there will be ample opportunity for leaders to discuss the transfer in coming months.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet with South Korean leaders on Wednesday, and she and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit the country in July. President Barack Obama is also slated to meet with the South Korean president during next month’s G20 summit.

“I think this is the beginning of a process of consultation that could very well result in [wartime control] transfer being delayed,” Szechenyi said.

rowlanda@pstripes.osd.milschogolj@stripes.osd.mil

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