Rethinking US troops in S. Korea

Rumsfeld comments spark debate over moving soldiers back from northern border.

South Korean Corp. Kim Song-hoon serves near the demilitarized zone dividing his country from North Korea, and lives and trains with US forces. He is certain if the US ever withdrew from the South, North Korea would immediately attack.

"The North is confident they can defeat our Army without much trouble," Mr. Kim says. "What stops them is the US Army. That's just the fact."

Now, a Pentagon review of US troops in the South - which comes amid the gravest security crisis the peninsula has faced in many years - represents the most extensive reexamination of forces that have deterred North Korean aggression for 50 years.

Remarks by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about "adjustments" of the 37,000 US troops - possibly withdrawing or redeploying them in a less dangerous position south of Seoul - has caused some shock and confusion among officials here, and elicited the clearest message to date from the new Roh government that US troops are wanted, at least for now.

Only two months ago, that government was elected on a wave of popular feeling against what is often felt to be a suffocating presence of US forces.

From the US side, three main ideas are in play - none of which may actually happen. In addition to possible redeployment of troops from the demilitarized zone, there is consideration of moving the central command outside of Seoul. Also under review is a possible overall drawdown from the peninsula.

All are separate issues. But in the current standoff climate, they have become confusingly congealed, and the subject of suspicion among many Koreans.

Ratcheting up tensions

Mr. Rumsfeld's comments are set against rising tensions on the peninsula. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has, in short order, restarted a dormant nuclear reactor that can produce weapons-grade plutonium, and embarked on a series of what US officials call "dangerous" provocations, including an anticipated short-range missile test this week.

Last week, four MiG fighters from the North intercepted an unarmed US spy plane over international waters in the Sea of Japan. A New York Times report now claims the pilot of one jet that came within 50 feet of the US plane made an internationally recognized hand signal for the plane to follow him down. Air Force officials interpret this as an attempt by the North to take the US crew hostage in an aerial replay of the 1968 Pueblo naval incident. "I felt that until the plane intercept, [North Korean leader] Kim's moves were predictable," argues one US military analyst in Seoul. "But this is a far more risky game."

Talk of adjusting US forces in Korea comes after a year of emotional protest in South Korea against American GIs, culminating in December in the surprise election of leftist Mr. Roh, who promised voters to put relations with the US on a "more equal basis."

Yet in the interim, the nuclear crisis and a downturn in the Korean economy has brought a more sober reckoning of what options the Roh government can pursue. Many of the younger protesters in Seoul that helped elect Roh have criticized the US, "thinking that no matter what they said or did, the Americans would never leave," one analyst points out. "They felt free to rant, thinking US interests in the region meant no withdrawal. But Pentagon thinking may be different."

Changes in the US force presence in South Korea has been under discussion both here and in Washington for nearly a decade. There are some 17 military posts along the DMZ in a space the size of Rhode Island. Many of the army posts have barracks built in the 1950s, and even some officers complain they cannot bring their families on base.

In coming years, the US plans to hand over some 50 percent of its current landholdings under a program agreed to by the Korean parliament last year. US troops are increasingly in the way of the civilian population, which led to a tragic accident last June when a US-tank vehicle ran over two schoolgirls, bringing a national outcry that lasted for months.

Interpreting moves

In addition to concerns about the US review, the timing of Rumsfeld's comments in particular have spurred some whispering. Some Koreans now worry that the US may redeploy the bulk of its troops south of Seoul, below the Han River, to put them out of harm's way - out of range of the North's artillery fire. Worries are that such a move would preface a possible preemptive strike against Kim's nuclear facilities. Some observers feel that while Kim has long wanted US forces off the peninsula, a US withdrawal might be interpreted by him as the signal for a US attack - backing him into a corner from which he finds it rational to make the first military move.

US diplomats and military officials deny any decisions have been made, and will wait until meetings between the US and South Korea in April.

One colonel at the DMZ stated, "we will fight alongside the South Koreans no matter what happens. We haven't let them down for 50 years, and we aren't starting now."

Kim Ki Ho,a South Korean colonel serving alongside the 2nd US Army division at the DMZ says, "I speak for every South Korean officer I know when saying we don't want the US out of Korea, and we don't want the US deployed south of the Han River."

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