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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette June 08, 2004

U.S. plans to cut troops in South Korea

By Jack Kelly

The United States confirmed yesterday that it plans to withdraw a third of its troops stationed in South Korea by the end of next year as part of a worldwide redeployment aimed at making U.S. forces more agile in responding to new threats.

It would be one of the largest reductions in force in South Korea since the end of the Korean War more than 50 years ago, when the U.S. left tens of thousands of troops in the country to deter another attack from North Korea.

The announcement took many in South Korea by surprise, as it followed on an earlier announcement that 3,600 soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division would be redeployed to Iraq next month.

0 Of the 37,000 troops now in South Korea, some 12,500 would be stationed elsewhere by the end of 2005. It hasn't been determined which other units will leave or where they will go, a Pentagon spokesman said.

The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, however, reported that the U.S. is sounding out Japan about moving some of the 14,000 Marines stationed on Okinawa to Hokkaido, where they would be in a position to reinforce South Korea quickly, should the need arise.

Bush administration officials say advances in military technology make it possible to provide a stronger defense of South Korea with fewer troops. But some South Korean analysts fear the reduction in forces presages an end to the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea.

"It could be a very ominous beginning of another unhappy development," according to Kim Tae Woo, a senior research fellow at the government-affiliated Korea Institute of Defense Analysis who spoke with the Christian Science Monitor.

The United States also is likely to redeploy the forces that remain in South Korea from the demilitarized zone or DMZ and the suburbs of Seoul to locations further south, experts said.

"The U.S. force is a potent counterattack force," said retired Army Brig. Gen. David Grange, who commanded a battalion in Korea. "It makes sense to relocate them."

Such a redeployment also would alleviate complaints by many South Koreans that the U.S. is squatting on valuable urban real estate. Seoul has grown rapidly since the end of the Korean War and now surrounds what once were isolated military bases.

A few U.S. experts think the withdrawal could lead to catastrophe, but most say it has little strategic significance.

"I don't think this changes the balance on the Korean peninsula, and thus shouldn't make a difference strategically," said Edward Luttwalk of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "The real U.S. military strength in Korea is air power and sea power, to some degree. The ground power is symbolic. The question is how few are enough for political considerations."

Donald Goldstein, a military historian and Korean War expert at the Ridgway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, agreed that the troop withdrawal would be largely symbolic.

"It's probably good because the troops weren't doing anything over there," Goldstein said.

Grange and retired Air Force Gens. Charles Horner and Michael Dugan said changes in technology and in the geopolitical situation make it possible to withdraw the troops without adverse strategic consequences.

"It's just a reflection of the way the world has changed. The growing strength of South Korea, the shrinking of our military forces," said Horner, who commanded allied air forces in the first Gulf War.

"There is no doubt American troops have been a deterrent," said Grange, a former commander of the 1st Infantry Division. "But North Korea is in a different position than they've been. Russia has a different attitude. China has a different attitude. Japan is stronger. South Korea is stronger."

"I'm not concerned about this," said Dugan, chief of staff of the Air Force in the runup to the first Gulf War. "Notwithstanding the fanfare from the North, it's just fanfare. There has been a great deal more stability on the Korean peninsula in the last five years than in the 15 before that, fewer infiltrations, fewer incidents. The South Koreans have a million-man army. They are not without resources to deal with local problems."

But retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a former head of the National Security Agency, thinks the troop withdrawal "could set in motion the deterioration of the U.S. military position on the Korean peninsula, which could lead to destabilization of the entire region."

The presence of U.S. troops not only keeps the North Koreans from attacking, it also permits the Japanese to keep their military small, which South Koreans -- who have bitter memories from World War II -- desire almost as much as to prevent a repeat of the Korean War, Odom said.

"The U.S. troop presence not only deters the North, it keeps cordial relations between South Korea and Japan," said Odom, now director of national security studies for the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. "If there is anything that would cause Japan to increase its military capabilities, it would be no U.S. troops in Korea."

John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.Org, another Washington think tank, said he's puzzled by the Bush administration's Korea policy.

The troop withdrawal "either suggests that there is a diminishing probability of war, or that they're just going to get American forces out of harm's way, to make it easier to blow up North Korea without getting a lot of Americans killed in the process," he said.

"In an ideal world, you wouldn't want to be [withdrawing troops]," said Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy. "You'd want to move them around on the peninsula, but you wouldn't take them out. But the reality is, we don't live in an ideal world. We've gotten too small. What do you do when you've got too few forces in your force structure? The administration is betting that North Korea will stay calm. It's a bet I'd just as soon not take."

Copyright 2004, PG Publishing Co., Inc