- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

U.S. officials reiterated their commitment to the defense of South Korea yesterday, even as they announced a plan to reduce the American troop presence in the North Asian country by one-third.

A reduction in forces had been rumored for months, but the magnitude of the cut surprised many observers. The Pentagon confirmation came after South Korean officials said they had received the U.S. proposal Sunday evening in Seoul.

“The proposal contained the following points: First, a redeployment of 12,500 troops from the [Korean] Peninsula over the 2004-2005 time frame; second, that number does include the 3,600 troops from the 2nd Infantry Division, 2nd Brigade, who will deploy from Korea to Iraq later this year,” Richard Lawless, deputy undersecretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in Seoul.

Other U.S. troops, now stationed in downtown Seoul and near the demilitarized zone, will be redeployed to a port in the southwest and other parts of the country.

The United States has 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea, complementing 690,000 South Korean forces. North Korea has about 1.1 million men bearing arms.

The redeployment is part a broad reordering of U.S. forces that has been under way for several years. The United States also has announced plans to shift some troops from Germany to Eastern Europe.

The Pentagon yesterday referred to recent remarks by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld affirming the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s security.

“We will not weaken the deterrent or the defense capabilities that we have, even though numbers and locations may shift and evolve and technologies advance and as circumstances change,” Mr. Rumsfeld said late last week.

“We have been for a long time, in effect, where we were when the Cold War ended. And it’s time to adjust those locations from static defense through a more agile and a more capable and a more 21st century posture,” he said.

In Seoul, top South Korean officials insisted there was no final plan for a U.S. withdrawal, and both the size and the timing of any redeployment still had to be decided.

“All we have is the United States making its proposal,” said Kwon Jin-ho, national security adviser to President Roh Moo-hyun. “It is something we need to consider and the two countries need to discuss.”

There were massive demonstrations against the American presence in South Korea in 2001 and 2002. Young demonstrators, in part, helped elect Mr. Roh, who promised less dependence on the United States.

“I think in [Mr. Rumsfeld’s] mind, and he has said this, that the United States should have troops only where we are welcome,” said Derek Mitchell, senior fellow for international security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the size of the troop reduction was less important than assuring South Koreans that the United States remains committed to their security.

“Our commitment remains. The deterrent remains. It is just a different approach to that commitment.”

Still, many South Koreans reacted with concern.

“South Koreans will be very worried if the United States withdraws so many troops at a time,” Rep. Hong Jae-hyong, the chief policy-maker of Mr. Roh’s ruling Uri Party, told the Yonhap news agency.

The conservative opposition Grand National Party, which has traditionally supported a U.S. military presence, described the plan as “shocking and surprising.”

But Peter Brookes, senior fellow for national security affairs and director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, noted that South Korea had the 11th-largest economy in the world and that its own military can “do more on the ground.”

“And with the war on terror, we can better use our forces elsewhere,” he said. “This should not be seen as retribution for South Korea — at least until this point — not sending troops to Iraq.”

Bill Gertz contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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