- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Senior congressional and administration officials said yesterday that now is not the time to talk of withdrawing American troops from South Korea, noting North Korea still brandishes thousands of hair-trigger troops on the border.
Pyongyang's oft-repeated demand to remove 37,000 U.S. troops received some impetus last week after the North's Kim Jong-il and the South's Kim Dae-jung met in Pyongyang and agreed to a warming of relations.
Then on Saturday, Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, fueled the debate further by saying the administration should start considering a pullout.
But officials said yesterday such talk is premature.
"You keep them there to ensure success," said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. "It's a long time between now and a less-dangerous, or a non-dangerous, peninsula. The North Koreans still have a massive military, and one meeting does not make a unified Korea.
"I would not move one troop until there was really substantial unification, and that would be sometime down the stream," he said.
Asked what the 50-year U.S. deployment has achieved, Mr. Skelton said: "It's achieved a democratic South Korea, and if North Korea comes around and a unification occurs, it will have achieved a new country. But that's way downstream.
"If we weren't there, North Korea would now be in Pusan again," added the congressman, referring to the early days of the Korean War, when North Korean forces pushed the South's army and U.S. troops down the peninsula to what became the Pusan perimeter.
A spokesman for Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the senator opposes any withdrawal.
"He believes that U.S. troops should remain in Korea for the time being because of the threat posed there," the spokesman said. "We don't think there should be a precipitous change in our force structure in Korea right now."
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: "I believe we should keep troops in South Korea as long as South Korea wants our troops in their country and as long as it is in our national interests to have them there. Both of these criteria are met at this time."
At the U.S. State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said no forces change is anticipated.
"We very much welcome the change in atmosphere and the prospect for reduction of tensions on the peninsula," he said. "But our troops are there as long as we and the South Koreans think they're necessary for defense, and that situation hasn't really changed at this stage."
Last week, Gen. Henry Shelton, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said, "it's probably premature to leap to any conclusions" about trimming troops there.
"For the foreseeable future, we do not see removing any troops from South Korea," said Lt. Cmdr. Terry Sutherland, a Pentagon spokesman.
Pentagon officials point to the sentiments of South Korea's president, who wants U.S. soldiers to remain even after any unification.
Mr. Helms seemed to go further than any other senior official when he endorsed at least a discussion of force reduction.
"Yes, sir, it's time to consider it," Mr. Helms told CNN. "And after deliberation, we can determine whether it's time to bring them out. It's too early for anybody to say we ought to bring them out now."
He added, "If it's a temporary lull, we'll have to leave the people there for a while. But if it's for real, then we ought to make plans to bring those folks home."
The United States is spending $3.2 billion this year to maintain the 37,000 troops in South Korea. The presence is principally made up of the 8th Army, headquartered in Seoul, the same component that waged war against North Korea and communist Chinese troops between 1950 and 1953. Its major units are the 2nd Infantry Division and the 19th Theater Army Area Command.
South Korea is also home for the 7th Air Force at Osan Air Base. The command is composed of 10,000 airmen and 100 operational units, including the 51st Fighter Wing.
The Americans there train on a razor's edge, poised for battle in terrain the Pentagon estimates is one of the most likely spots for war to break out. But even these forces cannot avoid readiness woes afflicting the armed forces, in the form of aging equipment and spare-parts shortages.
"Our readiness rate is pretty good. It's not as high as I like to see it," Lt. Gen. Charles R. Heflebower, the 7th Air Force commander, told The Washington Times.
Much of North Korea's million-man, active duty army is dug in close to the 38th Parallel dividing the reclusive, autocratic North and the democratic South. An invasion would be accompanied by a massive barrage of artillery fire that would reach the capital of Seoul and U.S. troops stationed along the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.

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