- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004

From combined dispatches

SEOUL — Washington wants to move some of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to Iraq, South Korean officials said today.

“The U.S. government has told us that it needs to select some U.S. troops in South Korea and send them to Iraq to cope with the worsening situation in Iraq,” said Kim Sook, head of the South Korean Foreign Ministry’s North American Bureau.

“South Korea and the United States are discussing the matter” and working out details, including the number of U.S. troops to be redeployed, Mr. Kim said.

In Washington, a senior defense official confirmed that the Pentagon is in discussions with Seoul about using some Korea-based U.S. forces in Iraq.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the shift would be part of the next rotation of American troops in Iraq, which is scheduled to begin late this summer.

However, a South Korean newspaper said the move could come within weeks.

Tapping into the U.S. military force in South Korea would be a historic move by the Pentagon.

It underscores the degree to which the military is stretched to provide enough forces for Iraq while also meeting its other commitments. The United States has maintained troops in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Seoul has feared that a cut in U.S. military presence might weaken the two allies’ combined defense readiness against North Korea amid tension over the communist state’s nuclear-weapons program. The inter-Korean border remains the world’s most heavily armed.

Washington has indicated that it plans to redeploy U.S. troops from South Korea, but would shore up its forces there with newer weapons, including Patriot antimissile systems.

The main U.S. combat force in South Korea is the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division. One of its brigades has traditionally been stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., as a reserve force for South Korea.

That brigade, which was the first in the Army to transition from tanks to the new Stryker wheeled vehicle, is already in Iraq.

In discussions with officials in Seoul, Washington left open the possibility that the brigade would not return to South Korea after its mission in Iraq, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper quoted a South Korean government official as saying.

The newspaper reported that the United States plans to send 4,000 troops from South Korea to Iraq.

“The United States did not specify the date, but only sent word that the deployment would be within weeks,” a Foreign Ministry official in Seoul told the newspaper.

South Korea has delayed the deployment of 3,000 of its own troops to Iraq, which was approved three months ago, amid concerns over security and where they will be stationed.

A diplomatic source in Seoul told Reuters news agency the U.S. plan to pull 4,000 of its troops out of South Korea was not intended to pressure South Korea to contribute troops to Iraq.

Of the 37,000 American forces stationed in South Korea, the 2nd Infantry Division with its 14,000 soldiers is the most forward-deployed.

South Korea and the United States are in negotiations over reorienting the U.S. military presence in Korea and have agreed to move most of the troops based in Seoul and those north of the capital to the south, out of range of North Korean artillery.

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