The US is reaffirming its commitment to defend South Korea, but the two countries' defense chiefs openly disagreed over the US refusal to specify that it would reply to a nuclear attack on South Korea with a nuclear response.
It also was obvious on Friday from a joint news conference that US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung are at odds over how quickly South Korean soldiers should assume operational wartime command of the country's military and how the expenses should be shared.
In his opening statement, Rums-feld said Yoon and he had discussed North Korea's Oct. 9 underground nuclear test and reports that another might be planned.
"The United States reaffirms its firm commitment to the Republic of Korea, including continuation of the extended deterrents offered by the US nuclear umbrella, consistent with the mutual defense treaty," he said.
He said that commitment "has sent a clear signal for over three decades" when it appeared in public statements issued after the joint ministers' meetings.
Later, Rumsfeld seemed slightly befuddled by a South Korean reporter's suggestion that Yoon's delegation had wanted changes in the communique's discussion of the deterrent commitment.
"I guess I'm not in a position to respond very extensively," Rumsfeld said.
"We've had language in the communique for a very long time. It's specific with respect to the nuclear umbrella. I don't recall hearing any proposal to change it ... or can I imagine how it could be improved upon," he said.
Yoon demurred: "This morning, we had extensive discussions about the nuclear umbrella issue, as we did during yesterday's ... meeting. So I hope that when the joint statement comes out eventually, it'll have different language from years past."
Yoon had said in his meetings with Rumsfeld that the statement should be more explicit about US nuclear assurances, according to two US officials who participated in the talks and who would discuss the matter only on condition of anonymity.
At the time of the Rumsfeld-Yoon news conference, the statement had not been completed nor made public, but the US officials said the language on US nuclear assurances had been settled. The officials said the language would not include the provisions sought by the South Koreans.
The US position is that because mutual defense are based on the concept that an attack on one is an attack on both, the document's mention that the nuclear protection was consistent with the mutual defense treaty was sufficient. It was accepted.
On the transition of operational control, control now is exercised by US officers heading a joint headquarters system. As the US draws down its force structure in South Korea, it plans to make the change in 2009. The South Koreans want to hold off for three more years.