Under the shadow of an unresolved North Korean nuclear crisis, the Pentagon pressed ahead this week with controversial plans both to reconfigure and upgrade American forces committed to the 50-year-old defense alliance with the South.
Major changes include a plan unveiled Thursday to reduce the US troop presence and bases along the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), in addition to a buildup of missile defenses and other capabilities intended to counter a North Korean attack.
Realignment of US forces in Korea is part of a worldwide shift in the American military posture aimed at creating a more fluid, expeditionary force and leveraging US technological advances in long-range precision warfare.
The United States "can achieve an effective military force at much greater distance than we could before, and often with a much smaller number of forces," said US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on an Asian tour this week. "That's I think the spirit in which we are looking at our deployments in Europe, in Northeast Asia ... and in the Persian Gulf as well."
Senior Pentagon officials stress the changes are aimed at countering North Korean "asymmetric advantages" and promoting a quicker, more effective military response to a North Korean onslaught. Still, South Korean officials have expressed concern that Pyongyang might interpret the moves as a weakening of the US posture - or preparation for a preemptive strike.
"Militarily it may make sense. Politically, it's dicey," says Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Center for International and Strategic Studies and an expert on North Korea. "You don't want to be tinkering with your military posture in the middle of a crisis over the North's nuclear-weapons program." He added that South Koreans fear that the US has "a hidden agenda to pull out. That is their worst nightmare."
In South Korea, a phased plan will consolidate bases and then withdraw US ground troops stationed along the DMZ to locations south of the Han River. No timeline has been given for the plan, but experts say it could take more than three years. Some 6,000 to 7,000 US troops will move from Yongsan garrison in Seoul to a camp 35 miles south of the city - part of a major realignment of the 37,000 American troops on the peninsula.
In new locations, US troops will be less vulnerable to a potential North Korean attack and will gain opportunities to train outside densely populated urban areas such as Seoul. "We've got to get out of the middle of cities," says Larry Wortzel, director of international studies at the Heritage foundation and a former Army officer stationed in Korea. "It amounts to having your military headquarters on the [Washington] Mall," he says.
Long-run plans are likely to shift the mix of US troops on the peninsula and create a more fluid force, defense officials and analysts say. The Pentagon seeks "to give our posture in Korea a little bit more of the character that it already has in Japan, which is not so focused on heavy ground-force deployments and a bit more outward looking, a bit more of a maritime orientation," Mr. Wolfowitz said.
Meanwhile, Washington has pledged to invest $11 billion over four years to bolster South Korean defenses - including upgrades to Patriot antimissile systems, a squadron of AH-64D Apache helicopters, and other capabilities aimed at better countering North Korean missile and artillery attacks.
Other enhancements include high-speed vessels that can more rapidly ferry Marines from Okinawa to the peninsula and the planned rotation to South Korea of the Army's newest force - the wheeled, medium-armored Stryker brigade.
"The North Koreans have certain advantages over us - asymmetric advantages," Wolfowitz said in Tokyo on Tuesday. "It's very important that we update our posture from where it was ten years ago."
Wolfowitz tried to reassure the South Korean leadership that the military shift would bolster, not harm, defenses against North Korea's 1.1-million strong armed forces, which have thousands of artillery pieces within striking distance of Seoul. South Korean officials preferred that troop moves be postponed. But the changes are "not something that should wait until the nuclear problem is solved," Wolfowitz said.
On North Korea's suspected development of nuclear weapons, Wolfowitz played down the possibility of a preemptive US military strike to eliminate the threat. "War in Korea would be quite a terrible thing," he said.
Instead, he advocated a patient, diplomatic course - using economic and political leverage from regional powers such as China, Russia, and Japan to persuade Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program. He suggested that the regime could be encouraged to embark on fundamental reforms such as those in China under former leader Deng Xiaoping.
"The message ... is that the help that they [the North Koreans] are getting now is going to dry up if they keep going down this road of provocative behavior," he said.