- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

PADJU, SOUTH KOREA South Korean Cpl. Kim Song-hoon serves near the demilitarized zone dividing his country and North Korea, and lives and trains with U.S. forces. He is certain that if the United States ever withdrew its military from the South, Pyongyang would attack immediately.
"The North is confident they can defeat our army without much trouble," Cpl. Kim said. "What stops them is the U.S. Army. That's just the fact."
Now, a Pentagon review of U.S. troops in the South which comes amid the gravest security crisis the Korean Peninsula has faced in many years represents the most extensive re-examination of forces that have deterred North Korean aggression for 50 years.
Remarks by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld about "adjustments" of the 37,000 U.S. troops possibly withdrawing or redeploying them to a less dangerous position south of Seoul has caused some shock and confusion among officials here, and elicited the clearest message to date from the new South Korean government that U.S. troops are wanted, at least for now.
Only two months ago, Roh Moo-hyun's government was elected on a wave of popular feeling against what is often felt to be a suffocating presence of U.S. forces.
From the American side, three main ideas are in play none of which may actually happen. In addition to possible redeployment of troops from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), U.S. officials are considering moving the central command outside of Seoul. Also under review is a possible overall drawdown from the peninsula.
All are distinct issues. But in the current standoff climate, they have become confusingly congealed, and are subject to suspicion among many Koreans.
Mr. Rumsfeld's comments are set against rising tensions on the peninsula.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has, in short order, restarted a dormant nuclear reactor that can produce weapons-grade plutonium, and begun a series of what U.S. officials call "dangerous" provocations, including a short-range missile test this week.
Last week, four MiG fighters from the North intercepted an unarmed U.S. spy plane over international waters in the East Sea/Japan Sea. A New York Times report said the pilot of one jet that came within 50 feet of the American plane made an internationally recognized hand signal for the aircraft to follow him down.
Air Force officials interpret this as an attempt by the North to take the U.S. crew hostage in an aerial replay of an incident in 1968 involving U.S. Navy vessel USS Pueblo. "I felt that until the plane intercept, [North Korean leader] Kim's moves were predictable," said one U.S. military analyst in Seoul. "But this is a far more risky game."
Talk of adjusting U.S. forces in Korea comes after a year of emotional protest in South Korea against American GIs, culminating in December in the surprise election of Mr. Roh, who promised voters to put relations with the United States on a "more equal basis."
Yet, in the interim, the nuclear crisis and a downturn in the South Korean economy have brought a more sober reckoning of what options the Roh government can pursue.
Many of the younger protesters in Seoul that helped elect Mr. Roh have criticized the United States, "thinking that no matter what they said or did, the Americans would never leave," one analyst suggested. "They felt free to rant, thinking U.S. interests in the region meant no withdrawal. But Pentagon thinking may be different."
Changes in the U.S. force presence in South Korea has been under discussion both here and in Washington for nearly a decade. There are about 17 military posts along the DMZ in a space the size of Rhode Island. Many of the army posts have barracks built in the 1950s, and some officers complain they cannot bring their families on base.
In coming years, the United States plans to return about 50 percent of its current land holdings under a program agreed to by the South Korean parliament last year. U.S. troops are increasingly in the way of the civilian population, which led to a tragic accident in June when a U.S. armored vehicle ran over two schoolgirls on a public road, provoking a national outcry that lasted months.
In addition to concerns about the U.S. review, the timing of Mr. Rumsfeld's comments has provoked whispering. Some Koreans now worry that Washington may redeploy the bulk of its troops south of Seoul, below the Han River, to put them out of range of North Korean artillery fire.
There are worries that such a move would preface a possible pre-emptive strike against the Pyongyang regime's nuclear facilities. Some observers feel that while Kim Jong-il has long wanted U.S. forces off the peninsula, an American withdrawal might be interpreted as the signal for a U.S. attack backing him into a corner from which he finds it rational to strike first.
U.S. diplomats and military officials deny any decisions have been made, and will wait until meetings between the United States and South Korea next month.
One U.S. colonel at the DMZ stated: "We will fight alongside the South Koreans no matter what happens. We haven't let them down for 50 years, and we aren't starting now."
Said Col. Kim Ki Ho, a South Korean army officer serving alongside the U.S. 2nd Division at the DMZ: "I speak for every South Korean officer I know when saying we don't want the U.S. out of Korea, and we don't want the U.S. deployed south of the Han River."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide