US redeployments afoot in Asia

Ending his trip Tuesday to Korea and Japan - both wavering on troops for Iraq - Rumsfeld outlined US troop shifts.

The vicissitudes of war in Iraq cast a dreary backdrop for Donald Rumsfeld's first visit to Asian military allies since he became US Defense Secretary in 2001.

This was not the trip the Pentagon expected or that Japan and South Korea anticipated even three weeks ago. At that time, both Tokyo and Seoul were brightly discussing significant troop deployments to Iraq, with Japan sending thousands, and Korea even possibly sending a division.

But the close Japanese elections last week, ongoing instability in Iraq after 19 Italians were killed, and a speedier timetable for Iraqi independence have quickly turned Asian allies much cooler about their involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom. And so as Mr. Rumsfeld wraps up his trip Tuesday, he will leave with mixed messages from Japan about sending troops this year, and a possible contribution of 3,000 Korean troops - though there is still disagreement over whether these will be soldiers or humanitarian support personnel.

"Each country must decide how best to contribute to the global war on terror," Rumsfeld said in Korea, an uncharacteristically mild invitation, and the same one he gave two days ago in Japan.

"He [Rumsfeld] is really swimming upstream right now," says a Seoul-based American analyst. "The timing for this trip could not have been worse."

For Pentagon officials, however, the bright side of a Pacific visit postponed for two years due to Sept. 11, is that the voluble Defense secretary was able to showcase his new strategy of "flexible response" - the first major strategic change in the Pacific in 50 years.

Articulating the new doctrine, Rumsfeld said that US forces in Korea and in Okinawa, Japan, where 29,000 troops are based, needn't any longer be frozen in forward positions on the Korean DMZ or languish in Japan. Highly mobile modern forces can be moved and rotated to address Asia-wide contingencies, and still guarantee security, Rumsfeld said. No plans are on the table to move troops from Korea to Iraq, however, he said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Korea Monday.

"It is capabilities, not numbers of things ... capability to impose lethal power, where needed, when needed with the greatest flexibility and with the greatest agility," he told reporters in the newly opened National Defense Ministry in Seoul. "Nothing will be done that weakens our deterrent," he said after announcing that US forces in will "realign and consolidate" for the first time since the Korean war.

The American forces that create the famous "tripwire" to stop an invasion by North Korea are to be "realigned and consolidated" into two major "hubs" south of the Han River. Some 37,000 US troops are based here, with the 2nd Division located in a series of camps along the DMZ, created in 1953 by a truce agreement that ended the war.

Korean military officials have expressed concern that a US withdrawal could leave remaining Korean forces vulnerable in the same strategic valley the North attacked from more than 50 years ago. US military planners say these fears are unfounded. No dates were given for completing the new hubs.

High level US officials told the Monitor that, despite some Korean hesitation, they are also prepared to immediately shift out of Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul, a 630-acre base that has housed hundreds of thousands of American troops since 1952, but that has become enormously unpopular among ordinary Koreans in recent years.

"We think it isn't in our best interest to leave troops in a small brier patch that used to be the site of the Japanese occupation forces in the 1930s," said a senior US official traveling with Rumsfeld. "We understand local feelings and political sensitivities. We are ready to go, 100 percent."

Sources said the importance of the Rumsfeld visit can partly be gauged by the fact that the Defense secretary doesn't like to travel ("He does so only at the point of a bayonet," one former US official says) and that he is doing so amid a rework of US policy in Iraq.

In late October, officials in Tokyo had not only discussed troops to Iraq by late November, but had even started preparing the Japanese public for casualties. Yet general elections last week in which the opposing Democratic Party of Japan picked up 40 seats in the lower house put an evident damper on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's plans.

Japan, long inhibited by its pacifist constitution, may now want to move more assertively around the world; there is a resolve in Tokyo in the past two years to participate in out-of-area military operations and to aid allies if it so desires, as part of a push to be a "normal nation."

But the Iraqi theater, with recent international targets ranging from the United Nations to the Red Cross to the 19 Italians last week, may represent more symbolism than Tokyo bargained for. There is still a strong pacifist postwar tradition in Japan.

"A car bomb [in Iraq] that kills 10 Japanese could bring down the government," one seasoned political analyst told foreign correspondents in Tokyo last week. But one Japanese official contacted called that prediction "unfounded."

The Korean troop deployment offers a measure of the changing nature of relations of late. Only last summer, President Roh Moo-hyun temporized and changed his mind twice over sending troops, unpopular among his younger, leftist, and often anti-Washington constituency. Some US analysts said that Seoul's decision on whether to support the US in Iraq was a "defining moment in the relationship." The US wanted at least 5,000 troops from Korea.

Now, with fewer backers, and with Japan, the main US ally in the Pacific unsure of what to do - the 3,000 Koreans suddenly look like a boon.

"Now it's a defining moment because the Japanese balked," says James Mulvenon of the Rand Corporation in Washington, "And President Roh has moved to the middle, to send troops, at considerable political expense. With the White House stiffed by the Japanese, the Europeans, and unable now to get a commitment from the Turks, the Indians and Bangladeshis, the South Koreans should be getting benefits."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.