Friday, June 6, 2003

The U.S. military will move thousands of troops from bases near the border with North Korea to areas farther south, the Pentagon announced yesterday.

Regular exercises, however, will be held along the tense demilitarized zone separating the two countries, according to a joint U.S.-South Korean statement.

“This process is not something that should wait until the North Korean nuclear problem is resolved, as though somehow it’s going to weaken our posture,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

“On the contrary, it’s part of an effort to strengthen our overall deterrent on the Korean Peninsula and enhance our ability to defend against a North Korean attack.”

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the review of U.S. force structure in South Korea was undertaken after a request from the new South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun.

Mr. Roh campaigned for president last year on a wave of public sentiment against the U.S. troop presence in South Korea. But once in office, he backtracked and urged that U.S. troops remain in the country.

There is no cutback planned in the total force of 37,000 U.S. troops deployed in South Korea.

The plan announced yesterday calls for first moving 7,000 U.S. soldiers, based in Seoul at the headquarters of the U.S. Forces Korea command, out of the city to an area farther south.

The second part will involve an initial consolidation of the 15,000-troop U.S. Army 2nd Infantry Division to two major bases, known as Camp Casey and Camp Red Cloud. The consolidation could begin as early as later this year.

Some time next year, the entire division will be based in what the joint statement said were “hubs” south of the Han River.

A new facility near Osan, where the U.S. Air Force has forces deployed, will be built for the division, defense officials said.

Currently, the division is deployed in 15 small camps scattered north of the Han River and close to the DMZ.

South Korean press reports stated that the Seoul government next year will buy land near Osan and Pyeongtaek for the U.S. troops.

The Pentagon also expects to spend $11 billion over the next three years to modernize U.S. forces with about 150 force enhancements. The upgrades will include the addition of Patriot PAC-3 missile defenses, deployment of the new Stryker Brigade combat unit, and the addition of high-speed naval vessels, according to the U.S. military statement.

Defense officials said that if North Korea decided to attack South Korea, all the U.S. troops currently based near the border would be forced to retreat under heavy artillery fire and through clogged urban roads.

The redeployment farther south will send a signal to North Korea that it cannot conduct a lightning attack on U.S. forces in hopes of a quick victory, the officials said.

Having troops based farther south near Osan also will signal North Korean leader Kim Jong-il that any attack would be met with a lightning counterattack by U.S. and South Korean forces that would drive to the capital of Pyongyang in the same way U.S. and coalition forces ousted Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The announcement yesterday followed two rounds of talks between U.S. and South Korean officials.

Assistant Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Cha Young-koo, who led the South Korean side in the talks, said continuing regular U.S. military exercises near the border “will mean that U.S. troops will continue to play the role of a tripwire to deter war.”

Defense officials, however, said the military maneuvers are not meant to put U.S. troops in that threatened position. “We disagree with that,” one official said.

The U.S. side in the talks was led by Richard Lawless, deputy assistant defense secretary for East Asia.

The move of the infantry division will be the first major repositioning of U.S. troops since the Korean War ended in 1953.

U.S. officials said the goal of the troop redeployment is to make the ground forces in South Korea more capable of conducting quick movement operations to other hot spots in the region or world.

Enhanced U.S. air and sea power also will improve the military forces’ capabilities, the officials said.

The South Korean redeployment is part of a Pentagon review of overseas troop bases. Other potential changes include deploying forces in Australia and moving troops and forces from Western Europe to Eastern Europe. Force deployments in Japan are not expected to change dramatically.

Mr. Rumsfeld said in March that large numbers of U.S. forces in South Korea are “arranged very far forward, where it’s intrusive in their lives.” Also, the troops there are “not very flexible or usable for other things,” he said.

He said South Korea “has all the capability in the world of providing the kind of upfront deterrent that is needed.”

U.S. forces can provide stronger air and sea power and reinforcement capabilities, Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have remained high since the war that ended 50 years ago this October. South Korea’s military includes about 650,000 troops that are facing North Korea’s 1.1-million-man army.

Most of North Korea’s troops are deployed along the 2.5-mile-wide DMZ, which divides the two countries along the 38th Parallel.

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