- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

SEOUL (UPI) — Amid mounting regional tensions caused by a China-Japan rivalry, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said this week he would not allow U.S. troops stationed in the country to become involved in East Asian disputes that can hurt stability on the peninsula.

“I clearly state that the U.S. Forces Korea should not be involved in disputes in Northeast Asia without our consent,” Mr. Roh said at an air force academy commencement ceremony on Tuesday.

It was the first formal response from the country’s leader to a U.S. plan to use its troops in South Korea as a regional force, with missions to handle conflicts outside the peninsula.

The United States has adopted a policy of “strategic flexibility,” under which U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea will be reshaped as “rapid deployment forces” to be able to respond to regional military conflicts.

The new U.S. policy has sparked concerns here that it would trigger an angry response from China, and South Korea could be involved in a China-Taiwan conflict, which could affect the political landscape in the region.

“We will never compromise on this,” Mr. Roh said, citing concerns that the expanded role of the U.S. forces in Korea might provoke China and destabilize regional security. “Our people will not get entangled in regional disputes against our will in the future. We will go ahead with this as a firm principle.”

Analysts interpret his remarks as part Seoul’s new defense doctrine to cope with changing U.S. military policy toward Asia and growing tensions sparked by aspirations by China and Japan for hegemony in the region and Beijing’s claim over Taiwan, also called the Republic of China.

“President Roh’s address means his government acknowledges the ‘strategic flexibility’ of U.S. troops stationed here on condition that they are not involved in military disputes in East Asia, such as a possible China-Taiwan conflict,” said Kim Tae-hyo, a political science professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.

Since the three-year Korean War ended in an uneasy armistice in 1953, tens of thousands of combat-ready American troops have been stationed in South Korea with the sole mission of deterring a second North Korean invasion.

The traditional U.S. military role in South Korea, however, is undergoing a fundamental change, as Washington has transformed its fixed, tripwire units worldwide into mobile, capability-based forces under its Global Posture Review plan to better deal with new security threats such as terrorism and rogue states.