HONOLULU — The United States will reassign some troops from South Korea to Afghanistan and Iraq and shift most of the 7,000 people in its headquarters in Seoul out of the capital beginning within a year, military officials say.
Thought also is being given to disbanding the United Nations headquarters in South Korea and ending the practice of keeping a four-star general in command of operations in the country.
The moves are part of a gradual disengagement of U.S. land forces from Korea and a greater reliance on sea power to maintain the American security posture in Asia.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld flew through northeastern Asia last week, sprinkling clues about the future of U.S. military dispositions even as he reaffirmed U.S. treaty commitments to South Korea and Japan. Other officials filled in details.
A primary reason for pulling back from South Korea is that the United States needs the 17,000 soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division elsewhere. As Mr. Rumsfeld and military leaders have said repeatedly, U.S. forces are stretched thin. The U.S. Army has only 10 divisions and cannot afford to have one tied down in Korea.
Mr. Rumsfeld told the Korean news agency, Yonhap, that the Pentagon has worked out a concept for adjusting force levels in Korea, that discussions have begun with the Korean government and that, within six months, the U.S. Congress will be informed of the plan.
He said the 2nd Division would not be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan but that individual soldiers serving in Korea almost certainly would be assigned to those nations. The division itself will move to posts south of Seoul to be near airfields where soldiers will prepare for contingencies elsewhere in Asia. The 37,000 U.S. troops in Korea today will be cut to an undetermined number.
Military officers said that the Pentagon will shift most of the 7,000 people in its headquarters in Seoul out of the capital, beginning within a year, and that an undisclosed number would be sent back to the United States. They said technology would permit the headquarters to operate with fewer people.
U.S. officials are negotiating terms of the transfer; the United States has long said it would move the headquarters out of Seoul if the Korean government would pay for the transfer.
Korean defense officials have been balking at that. In addition, they are said to fear a loss in operating ability if the U.S. headquarters were moved from its current location across the street from the South Korean Ministry of Defense.
The desire to make other use of the 2nd Division is enhanced by South Korea’s rejection of a U.S. request that it send a division of 12,000 soldiers to secure a sector in Iraq.
Seoul will post only 3,000 troops, including the 700 already there. Most will be noncombatants, meaning the United States or another country might have to furnish forces to protect them.
Another reason for drawing down in Korea is the anti-Americanism that has become so widespread that moving U.S. troops out of Seoul and populated areas north of the capital will ease tensions only slightly.
In a discussion of South Korea and North Korea, an American officer said, only half-joking, “Sometimes I wonder which one is really our adversary.”
Moreover, President Bush and President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea disagree on how to dissuade North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, despite superficial agreement on tactics. The U.S. president advocates a firm approach, while the South Korean leader would be more accommodating.
Evidently no precise timetable has been set for the changes, but Mr. Rumsfeld suggested that they would be under way in the next five years.
In addition to headquarters and troop movements, U.S. officials have begun to consider disbanding the United Nations headquarters, which has been there since the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.
The Combined Forces Command, which gives the United States operational control over Korean troops, will be dissolved, ending a situation that has long irritated nationalistic Koreans.
Finally, the position of the four-star U.S. Army general, who today commands the U.N. mission, the Combined Forces Command, and U.S. troops, most likely will be abolished in favor of a lower-ranking commander. The four-star flag might be moved to the headquarters of the U.S. Army in the Pacific in Hawaii, as many senior Army officers have advocated.
Mr. Rumsfeld dropped clues about the changes during his flight to Guam, telling the traveling press that the Pentagon has been reviewing force deployments and “we’re now at a stage where we can begin discussing [that] with our allies and with Congress.”
Aboard the Navy command ship Blue Ridge in Yokosuka, Japan, Mr. Rumsfeld pointed to an increased reliance on sea power, saying: “I think those of you who are serving in the Navy are going to see the responsibilities of the United States Navy increase generally, and increase particularly here.”
Addressing Americans in Okinawa, where most U.S. forces in Japan are posted, the defense secretary said, “We’ve got to continue to pull down deployments.”
He said some peacetime overseas deployments would continue but added: “Once they do that job, they ought not to be there any longer.” American troops have been in Korea since the Korean War.