- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

SEOUL — The announcement that the United States will withdraw one-third of its troops from South Korea by December 2005 has shaken Koreans and kindled concerns about the state of the bilateral alliance.

Two-day “Future of the Alliance” meetings between South Korean and U.S. officials wrapped up in Seoul yesterday, with the Korean side clearly discomfited by the speed of the pullout.

Some senior Korean officials quoted in the local press said they would attempt to delay the withdrawal.

Furthermore, the two sides failed to reach agreement on the relocation of Yongsan base, the giant U.S. post in the center of Seoul.

The Yongsan base relocation — a key subject in the talks, because the presence of U.S. forces in the heart of Seoul is often cited as a factor in anti-Americanism here — got bogged down on the issue of the size of the replacement base south of the capital.

An official from the U.S. side, led by deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia Richard Lawless, appeared frustrated that the size of the base offered by the Korean side would not meet future U.S. needs.

But it is the 12,500-man troop cut from an American force of about 37,000 that has become the major issue.

In a rare display of unanimity, lawmakers from the ruling Uri Party and the conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP) expressed surprise at the speed of the pullout.

“This is a critical issue, though it is not just a Korean issue — it is part of the U.S. strategy across Asia and the world,” said Chung Bong-ju, an assemblyman with the Uri Party.

“I am worried that the steps are so fast — it is faster than we had guessed,” said Song Young-sun of the GNP. “The timing is rather surprising. We had assumed [the withdrawal would take place] by 2008, with consolidation of U.S. troops away from the demilitarized zone, the transfer of the Yongsan garrison and the completion of the [new] U.S. base at Osan-Pyeongtaek.”

Foreign investors were unperturbed.

“I have no concern. The two governments are in consultation, and they have announced that there will be no decrease in deterrent capability,” said Bill Oberlin, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.

Although about 25,000 U.S. forces will remain on the peninsula, analysts speculate that with Japan becoming the main hub of U.S. military activity in Asia, Tokyo will overtake Seoul as Washington’s closest ally in the region.

In related developments, Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon asked lawmakers to support the much-delayed dispatch of a brigade of Korea troops to Iraq.

Prior to the talks, the United States announced that it would withdrawal its crack 2nd Infantry Brigade from Korea and redeploy it to Iraq this summer, in what some have seen as impatience with Korean delays.

U.S. officials at the talks confirmed that this brigade would be part of the 12,500 troops to be cut from the strength of U.S. forces in Korea. The makeup of the remaining troops to be pulled out next year has not been announced.

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