US redeployments to Iraq rattle South Korean alliance

Seoul is trying to downplay fears of further withdrawals.

The United States has opened a new chapter in its relationship with South Korea by what some here see as a precipitous decision to pull a combat infantry brigade from the historic invasion route between North Korea and this teeming capital 30 miles to the south.

While people sometimes joke that an invading army would bog down in mammoth Korean-style traffic jams on the way, the presence of 14,000 frontline troops with the US Second Infantry Division is still viewed here as a vital tripwire for US pledges to defend Korea in the face of North Korea's million-plus army.

In a visit here last November, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld impressed on Korean leaders his plan for restructuring US forces in Asia, including the repositioning further south of the 2nd Division. The understanding, however, was that the US headquarters in Seoul would be the first to move south of the capital, while the 2nd Division would remain in place for several more years and the US would keep 37,000 troops in the country.

But the sudden decision to transfer one infantry brigade - the first reduction of US troops in Korea since the 1970s has led many analysts here to view the plan as a sign that the US will ultimately give up its commitment to Korea's defence.

"It could be a very ominous beginning of another unhappy development," says Kim Tae Woo, senior research fellow at the government-affiliated Korea Institute of Defense Analyses. "That is the phasing down of the [South Korea]-US alliance."

Hoping to counter this view, the South Korean government has been engaged in damage control ever since an official from the National Security Council in Washington called Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon early Monday to notify him of the plan.

In an exercise in face-saving, Korean foreign ministry and defense officials made a point of being the first to reveal the plan, saying the US was diverting to Iraq as many as 4,000 troops from the Second Infantry Division, the forwardmost American combat division in Asia. On Tuesday, Mr. Ban told reporters that the redeployment would involve around 3,600 troops and could begin in one to three months. He denied that it was the beginning of further pullouts as US attention is increasingly focused on the Middle East.

The White House and Pentagon waited to confirm the news until Tuesday - after US President Bush called President Roh Moo Hyun, who was reinstated last Friday by the courts after being impeached..

The initial inclination of government officials was to say they wished the US had first come to a settlement with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program. Now officials claim they knew the US would scale down its commitment here as part of Mr. Rumsfeld's restructuring plans.

Such ambivalence reflects widespread uncertainty here at a time when the government is pursuing reconciliation with North Korea against pressure from conservatives who see little if any sign of concessions or progress in negotiations. The result is that South Koreans, from student demonstrators to government advisers, send mixed signals that reflect deep disagreement on how to deal with the US alliance as well as North Korea.

"It is a very complex issue," says Kim Tae Woo. "The official statements are very simple. They are saying this is due to a global plan and there should be no security vacuum on the Korean peninsula."

Mr. Kim concedes the validity of that argument but also believes the US decision to scale back here is "in response to the anti-American movement" and predicts that Washington "will continue the reduction of its troops." In the end, he says, US concern about China will persuade Washington to have second thoughts about further withdrawals.

Washington appears to have timed the decision to come as soon as possible after the conclusion of a political crisis over Roh's impeachment by a conservative majority in the National Assembly.

The impeachment backfired in elections in April. The new Assembly is now dominated by the Uri Party, which supports Roh. Many Uri members, however, oppose Roh's pledge to contribute 3,000 troops to the coalition in Iraq, raising suspicions here that the US decision was provoked in part by delays in dispatching the troops. South Korean officials deny that.

South Korean procrastination on Iraq raises still more questions about the the government's commitment to the alliance, even if it is possible to rationalize the troop transfer as the first step in a plan for flexibility made more palatable by the US promise to invest $11 billion to upgrade the country's defenses.

The troop transfer may, if anything, be contributing to South Korean reluctance to help in Iraq, and there's no denying the sense that US-Korean relations are changing as the US downsizes here.

"It's a very delicate issue," says Park Jong Chul, researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification. "It's earlier than expected. It will accelerate the pattern of the alliance."

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