- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003


The American force that has stood guard on the Korean Peninsula since the war against communist North Korea ended 50 years ago is about to change fundamentally.

Details are in quiet negotiation, but outlines of a deal are coming into focus even as President Bush visits the region:

• The number of American troops in South Korea, now about 37,000, likely will decline. The Americans want a reduction of perhaps one-third, or about 12,000 troops, which would be the biggest cut in decades. It’s one that makes the South Korean government nervous.

• The forces that remain will be more “expeditionary.” They would be positioned in ways to enable American commanders to send them elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region. It’s a major change, reflecting Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s view that the fight against terrorism requires a more flexible approach to use of U.S. troops worldwide.

• Though smaller in number, the U.S. military presence would be more capable in important ways. By moving farther south of the Demilitarized Zone that has separated North and South Korea since the war ended in 1953, the U.S. Army would be able to respond more quickly to an attack by the North. As currently positioned, the Army would have to withdraw south of Seoul first, while in range of the North’s long-range artillery, before organizing a counteroffensive.

“No longer will our forces be based near the DMZ as a political ‘trip wire,’” Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, told Congress this summer.

• South Korea will do more for its own defense, with exclusive responsibility for guarding the Joint Security Area, an 800-yard-wide enclave, roughly circular in shape, that bisects the line separating South and North Korea. This area is often called Truce Village but is best known outside Korea as Panmunjom.

The South Koreans also would play a bigger role in protecting against North Korea’s sizable and highly trained special operations forces, which attempt to infiltrate the South, and in missile defense.

Although the reconfiguration of U.S. forces would mostly center on South Korea, the change is likely to be felt in every country throughout the Asia-Pacific region because the American troops would become more suitable for training and other missions in countries such as the Philippines.

The Pentagon has been reviewing the worldwide positioning of its forces — known as its “footprint” — for months. Putting in place the changes likely will take years.

Talk of adjusting the U.S. military presence in South Korea goes back to the early 1990s but has been slow in reaching conclusions. The Pentagon under Mr. Rumsfeld has pushed hard in recent months, particularly on moving the main U.S. Army headquarters from the Yongsan garrison in downtown Seoul, where it has become a source of friction with the local population.

U.S. officials have been reluctant to speak openly of reducing troops in South Korea. They prefer to focus on their announced intention to increase the overall U.S. military capability in that area — in part by having more long-range aircraft in the Pacific region, and possibly by moving an aircraft carrier from the continental United States to Hawaii or Guam.

Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently came as close as any senior Pentagon official to saying that a reduction in U.S. troops in Korea is inevitable.

“I personally believe that the numbers of U.S. troops in Korea can, in fact, be reduced, at the same time that the U.S. capabilities to defend Korea are increased,” Gen. Pace told the Council on U.S.-Korean Security Studies on Oct. 10. He stressed that South Korea would be consulted first.

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