- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

SEOUL — Is the United States planning to use South Korea as a base for potential military intervention in a conflict between China and Taiwan?

The question was raised Tuesday by a South Korean lawmaker who cited a classified defense document that a purported U.S. plan to use American troops stationed in South Korea as a “stabilizer” of northeast Asia is designed to intervene militarily in a conflict between China and Taiwan.

If true, the plan is sure to provoke an angry response from China and spark concerns that South Korea could be involved in a potential China-Taiwan conflict, which could alter the political landscape in the region.

In a press conference at the parliament building in Seoul, Roh Hoe-chan of the opposition Democratic Labor Party revealed the document, drafted by the South Korean Defense Ministry before high-level military talks with Pentagon officials in July 2003 on the future of the military alliance between Washington and Seoul.

[In related developments, the United States and South Korea recently agreed to relocate the main U.S. headquarters from Yongsan Military Reservation in Seoul to Camp Humphreys, about 25 miles south of Osan, by 2008. In May, Washington announced plans to shift 3,600 troops from South Korea to Iraq, and the following month, American officials reportedly proposed to their Korean counterparts withdrawing up to a third of the 37,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.

[Other changes of the U.S. posture in Korea have been put off until security-policy talks with the South Korean government early next year, when President Bush’s second-term Cabinet is in place.]

“The U.S. plan to use its troops in South Korea as a regional stabilizer is aimed at militarily intervening in regional disputes,” Mr. Roh said.

South Korea also has been preparing for Washington’s plans to change the role of U.S. Forces Korea, which traditionally has been considered a “fixture” on the Korean Peninsula to deter North Korea and its 1.1 million-strong army.

“It is the first time for a document to confirm that U.S. Forces Korea is seeking a new role targeted at China and North Korea,” Mr. Roh said. “The United States clarified its intention to intervene militarily in North Korea and China.”

Until this year, the United States had 37,500 troops stationed in South Korea under a bilateral defense treaty signed after the 1950-1953 Korean War. The number was reduced to 33,900 in the summer, when 3,600 troops deployed near the heavily armed demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas were transferred to Iraq.

The United States plans to withdraw about 9,000 more troops from South Korea by 2008, saying the reduction is part of its global defense posture review aimed at transforming the U.S. Army into a more mobile, agile force to better cope with new threats such as terrorism.

The troop-reduction plan touched off security concerns because South Korea has relied on U.S. protection for national security for more than a half-century, while focusing its resources on building the economy.

Mr. Roh said Washington’s plan is designed to play a greater role in regional conflicts. If China were involved in military conflict with Taiwan, or the North Korean regime abruptly collapsed, the document proposed pre-emptive U.S. military intervention, he said.

The document outlines three scenarios for how the U.S. forces might react on the basis of the level of regional tension as they expand their security role beyond the Korean Peninsula, Mr. Roh said.

“In the midlevel scenario, Washington will intensify its pressure on Pyongyang if it continues trying to develop nuclear weapons. This will eventually irritate Beijing, leading to full-scale conflict between China and the United States,” he said.

The high-level scenario includes involvement of U.S. Forces Korea in disputes between China and other northeast Asian powers, military intervention in conflicts between China and Taiwan, and use of its armed forces to manage a crisis on or near the Korean Peninsula in case of the sudden collapse of the North Korean regime, the document said.

“This document shows the role of U.S. Forces Korea will not be limited to an anti-terrorist war, and proposes its intervention militarily in potential regional hegemonic countries like China as well as in North Korea,” Mr. Roh said.

U.S. and South Korean officials have denied Mr. Roh’s accusations, saying the main role of U.S. Forces Korea will continue to be a deterrent force against North Korea.

The South Korean Defense Ministry dismissed Mr. Roh’s remarks as “utterly untrue.” The ministry document he cited was only a compilation of academic papers and other materials a South Korean official had prepared for potential discussion at the Seoul-Washington defense talks, the ministry said.

The presidential National Security Council also denied Mr. Roh’s accusations, saying it has never seen the document.

But Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said last month that South Korea was not opposed to U.S. forces playing a greater role in northeast Asia unless it meant a weakening of the combined defense posture for ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

“I admit the necessity of what the Americans call strategic flexibility,” Mr. Ban told the Korea Times, saying the global security situation had changed in the past 50 years.

Another government official raised concerns that Seoul could be involved in a China-Taiwan conflict if U.S. troops stationed in South Korea were mobilized for the regional dispute.

In case of a war across the Taiwan Strait involving Taipei’s push for independence, the two Koreas are likely to be involved because the South and the North have defense treaties with the United States and China, respectively.

Under the bilateral defense treaty, the United States automatically would react to a North Korean invasion and South Korea is required to help the U.S. side in case of conflict. Along this line, South Korea has sent 3,600 troops to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

“The two Koreas should move toward further reconciliation and cooperation so that they can remain away from any China-Taiwan military conflict,” a government official in Seoul said.

“Greater inter-Korean cooperation would help each refuse outside pressure. It is one of few options for South and North Korea to avoid getting involved in the China-Taiwan conflict,” he said, adding that this was his personal opinion.

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