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SEOUL — The top U.S. general on the Korean peninsula will lead a major U.S.-South Korean military exercise this summer instead of a South Korean general, disrupting a critical benchmark in the preparation for the South to assume wartime command of its troops in less than two years.

A Ministry of Defense spokesman said the change is the result of questions raised about the South’s ability to respond to a North Korean attack following the March sinking of a South Korean warship. U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Walter Sharp will lead the Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercise.

“We are adjusting UFG to better account for provocations and threats we see coming from [North Korea] today,” USFK spokeswoman Col. Jane Crichton said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

A South Korean-led multinational investigation into the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan concluded the ship was split in two by a torpedo launched by a North Korean midget submarine near the disputed Yellow Sea maritime border between the two countries, killing 46 sailors. North Korea has denied involvement.

Sharp, who also commands the Combined Forces Command, decided two weeks ago to lead the exercise following a “coordinated decision” between the two countries, Crichton said.

A South Korean commander has led the exercise for the past two summers.

Earlier this week Gen. Lee Sang-eui, chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, submitted his resignation in an upheaval over the command structure’s handling of the attack.

A South Korean audit agency recommended last week that Lee and 24 other top generals be disciplined for not ensuring the combat readiness of South Korean forces, according to the Associated Press.

The defense ministry spokesman said Lee’s successor is to be officially confirmed to the post next month.

Ulchi Freedom Guardian is one of two major exercises the U.S. and South Korea conduct annually. This year’s UFG was to be the third of four testing South Korea’s ability to lead troops before the planned April 17, 2012, transfer of operational control, referred to as OPCON.

A number of analysts and former military officials, including a group of retired top South Korean generals, had raised questions over the past year about whether South Korea is ready for the transfer. The sinking of the Cheonan has increased calls to delay the date.

On Tuesday the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, released a report on U.S. policy on the Korean peninsula that, among other recommendations, called for a review and possible delay of OPCON due to the sinking.

After last year’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian, Sharp said the priority for this summer’s version would be improving coordination between the two militaries and ensuring both were able to get the same information during wartime.

Last March, during a major spring exercise about two weeks before the Cheonan sank, Sharp said South Korea was “on track” for OPCON transfer.

Crichton said dates for this year’s UFG have not been set.

About 10,000 U.S. troops and 55,000 South Korean troops participated in last summer’s exercise.

rowlanda@pstripes.osd.mil

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