- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

SEOUL — U.S. and South Korean officials open two days of talks today amid growing concerns that the United States is about to reduce its military commitment to South Korea’s security.

The talks will deal with previously announced plans to deploy U.S. forces away from the border with North Korea and out of the capital, and to transfer a crack brigade to Iraq.

But persistent press reports say the United States also wants to permanently reduce its force level in the country from the current 37,000 troops to 25,000 over the next few years.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless will lead the U.S. delegation at the ninth “Future of the Alliance” talks. His opposite number, Ahn Kwang-chan, will head up South Korea’s team.

Plans to relocate the U.S. garrison in Yongsan, Seoul, to a new location south of the capital is at the top of the official agenda, with the critical talks on the size and status of future U.S. Forces Korea, or USFK, to be held on the sidelines.

The United States informed the Korean government May 14 that the 3,600 men of the 2nd Infantry Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division would be deployed to Iraq this summer.

The brigade, a heavy infantry unit, is considered one of the finest in the U.S. order of battle and is the key U.S. combat unit that guards the traditional invasion corridor to Seoul.

There is concern here that the deployment is meant to compensate for Korea’s failure to commit its own brigade-sized contingent to Iraq, a move that would have made Korea the third-largest contingent there.

The possibility of a much greater U.S. force reduction has also been aired. Local press reports, quoting a “high-ranking government official,” say the United States told Korea a year ago that it may withdraw as many as 12,000 of its 37,000 men from Korea as part of its Global Defense Posture Review.

It is not clear whether the imminent redeployment of the 2nd Infantry Brigade is part of such a permanent withdrawal.

Various figures in recent weeks, including Lt. Gen. Charles Campbell, commander of the U.S. 8th Army here, and Thomas Hubbard, U.S. ambassador to Korea, have said the United States will upgrade its air defense, air force, and command and control capabilities in South Korea.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also assured South Korea at a regional meeting in Singapore on Saturday that the alliance would remain strong. The last significant U.S. troop cut on the peninsula was in 1992.

What does appear certain is that the United States will be moving units away from the border with North Korea and out of the capital, Seoul.

Sources close to the U.S. command said there is a feeling that South Korea needs to take on a greater share of the burden for its own defense.

The South, with 48 million people, has more than twice the population of the North, at 22 million, and as the world’s 11th-largest economy, has much greater economic power than the impoverished North.

Local reaction to the news of troop moves has been mixed, with conservatives worrying that a reduction in troops will weaken the Korea-U.S. alliance.

“We understand the U.S. strategy in the global sense, but a further reduction of troops would be undesirable,” said Kim Myong-whai of the Institute for Korean Studies.

Others worry that the removal of U.S. troops from their “trip-wire” status along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) would make it easier for the United States to conduct a pre-emptive strike against the North without fear of retaliation against its own troops.

The redeployment of combat units from the DMZ and from Seoul effectively moves them beyond the North’s artillery range.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has been sending mixed messages.

In a speech yesterday, Mr. Roh called for both “collective security” — understood by some analysts to mean a NATO-like Northeast Asia security pact — and a “mutual alliance.” But at other times he has called for greater independence in security.

This week’s talks come at a time when Mr. Roh’s policy of engaging the North is bearing some fruit.

General-level military talks between the two Koreas produced an agreement Friday to set up a hot line, establish radio communications and clarify visual signals used by naval forces.

The steps would go a long way to preventing clashes off Korea’s west coast, where fatal naval engagements took place in the crab-fishing grounds in 1999 and 2002.

The agreement also included cutting down on propaganda efforts by both sides along the DMZ.

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