ALMOST 40 years after military ties with South Korea were forged in the fire of the Korean War, the United States is looking for a subtle change in this important East Asian relationship. Despite congressional agitation, it's unlikely any of the 43,000 US troops in Korea will be coming home soon. The Bush administration, however, is launching a broad review of the US military presence on the Korean peninsula, and US officials say they expect South Koreans to shoulder more of the burden of their own defense.
In years ahead, the US military presence in Korea ``will not be the same as it is today. It won't necessarily be smaller, but it will be different,'' said Col. Ken Jodoin, Defense Department Deputy Director of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, at a seminar in Washington on Tuesday.
When South Korea President Roh Tae Woo visits the United States beginning Oct. 15, he will find a national perception of his country greatly changed from that of only a few years ago. The Seoul Olympics, $2 billion a year imports of zippy Hundai autos, and a host of other Korean-made imports have gone a long way toward altering the image of Korea as Japan's less-developed neighbor.
Since Roh Tae Woo was elected to succeed the authoritarian Chun Doo Hwan in 1988, arbitrary arrest and other human rights violations in South Korea have lessened, say Bush administration officials. Human rights is no longer a front burner US-Korean issue as far as the White House is concerned.
``US-ROK [Republic of Korea] relations are in very good shape,'' said Karl Richardson, director of the State Department's Office of Korean Affairs.
Trade, however, is a problem, from the US point of view. When President Bush visited South Korea earlier this year, he devoted his speech to warning the Koreans against protectionism. The US wants South Korea to import more high-value US agricultural products, such as beef; open its telecommuncations markets wider; and solidify copyright protection of foreign intellectual property, such as computer software.
But for the US, the dominant factor in the relationship is still the military alliance between the two countries. The Soviet Union continues to maintain large forces in the Pacific region, though under Mikhail Gorbachev the Soviets appear to be much less of a security threat. North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung remains a leader capable of ``irrational acts,'' US Army Gen. Louis Menetrey, commander of combined US and South Korean forces, told Congress earlier this year.
The deployment of US troops in Korea is coming under increasing challenge in Congress, however. Earlier this fall, Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas and Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana proposed an amendment to the Senate's military spending bill that would have brought home 3,000 of the 43,000-man US force.
The amendment lost, but it reflected the so-called burdensharing move in Congress to cajole all US allies, from Europe to Japan, to pay more for alliance defense. Instead, the Senate passed a provision calling on the Pentagon to make a sweeping review of US force options in Korea by next April.
The Defense Department is already moving forward on the comprehensive study.
Even if there weren't any congressional pressure, ``there is a need for [Korea] to do more,'' said Colonel Jodoin.
South Korea now says it antes up for 43 percent of the cost of the US deployment, but about half that contribution is not in hard cash but in foregone rent on real estate made available free to the Pentagon.
The Pentagon wants the South Korean government to pick up more of the tab for South Korean citizens employed on US bases.
Per Senate direction, the Defense Department review will include not only the effect of troop reductions and increased South Korean payments, but of a transfer of some military missions from US to South Korean forces. It is in this particular area that the US-Korean military relationship will undoubtedly be different in coming years.
The Pentagon figures that the South Koreans will be militarily self-sufficient in the mid-1990s. US air and naval power could still be critical if North Korea attacked, but the US Second Infantry Division, now deployed on the route from the north to Seoul, would no longer be seen by the Defense Department as a key part of South Korea defenses.
There is some discussion in the Pentagon that if the Second Division is not brought home due to political pressure, it could be transformed into a force better suited to use throughout the Pacific region. ``It's a heavy mechanized division now,'' says a Pentagon officer who works on the issue. ``You could make it into a lighter mechanized division or even into an airborne force.''
South Korea, for internal political reasons, is keenly interested in changing some parts of its American security relationship.
For example, the more paternalistic aspects of the US presence in the country helped fuel the anti-American demonstrations that were so prominently on display during President Bush's February visit.
Currently the top military commander in the country is not Korean, but American - a four-star Army general who heads combined US-South Korean forces. The arrangement is a vestige of the Korean War, and could well change in the near future.