The planned withdrawal of 12,500 U.S. troops from South Korea comes amid increased defenses against a weaker but still dangerous North Korean military threat, according to Pentagon officials and a military report.
Cuts in the current force of about 37,500 troops, announced earlier this month, are based on 10 years of upgrades in South Korean forces and a U.S. force restructuring of fewer bases with new weapons and equipment, said the officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said during a hearing this week that the force restructuring is “targeted directly against particular North Korean military strengths.”
“Increased missile defenses, for instance, help compensate for the North’s vast ballistic-missile arsenal,” Mr. Hunter said.
“Rather than reducing its commitment, the United States is tailoring its forces more towards using our particular strengths to offset North Korean advantages,” he said.
“We are confident that our reduction and realignment will not diminish in any way our deterrent or defensive capabilities,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico, a Pentagon spokesman. “And the North Koreans certainly should not misread this.”
A U.S. military report obtained by The Washington Times says the struggling communist state’s economic problems have lowered military readiness, limited arms modernization and made it more difficult for Pyongyang to use its 1.2 million troops to reunite the Korean Peninsula by force.
Still, the report concludes that “North Korea poses a dangerous and complex threat to peace and security in the region and throughout the world.”
“The size, firepower, and proximity of North Korea’s conventional forces to Seoul — coupled with their lethal asymmetric threats — give North Korea the capability to inflict great destruction and casualties if they chose to attack,” the report says.
The threats include 122,000 special-operations commandos and some 500 Scud missiles that can target all of South Korea with conventional or chemical warheads.
“They continue to produce and deploy medium-range [No-Dong] missiles capable of striking cities and military bases in Japan with these same payloads,” the report says. “Continued research on a three-stage variant of the [Taepo-Dong] missile could provide North Korea the capability to target the continental United States.
“We see no indications the Kim [Jong-il] regime will change its ‘Military First’ policy, brinkmanship, nuclear challenges, missile proliferation, and illegal activities that ensure regime survival,” the report states.
“The North Korean people will continue to suffer under an oppressive regime. For the foreseeable future, North Korea remains a major challenge to security in Northeast Asia.”
The assessment states that 70 percent of North Korea’s army is deployed south of Pyongyang and can attack “with little tactical warning.”
The U.S.-South Korea alliance is undergoing changes, with the Seoul government influenced by anti-U.S. officials, many of them former student radicals who are pro-North Korea.
“This is a period of tremendous change in the alliance,” said one defense official. “And with change, there’s friction and there’s frustration, probably on both sides.”
After running for president on an anti-U.S. military platform, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has welcomed U.S. troops as important for stability. Other South Korean officials have said the decision to withdraw the 12,500 troops was abrupt and could lead North Korea to attack, as it did in 1950 at the start of the Korean War.
The Pentagon said troop cuts will be balanced by plans to spend $11 billion over three years on new weapons and equipment.
The enhancements include strengthening and protecting U.S. communications and intelligence capabilities, adding more powerful armored vehicles, doubling the five batteries of Patriot antimissile systems and adding the more lethal PAC-3 version of the system. A Patriot battery has 16 launchers with more than 100 missile interceptors.
Another major change in South Korea will be the shift of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, now spread out in some 41 bases north of Seoul, to 10 bases in the central part of the country near Osan.
Defense officials said the consolidation makes the division much more capable of defending against a North Korean invasion, something noted by Pyongyang.
State-run North Korean media in recent weeks have reported that the United States is preparing a pre-emptive nuclear attack on North Korea.
The first U.S. troops to be withdrawn will be an Army brigade of 3,600 combat troops due to leave for Iraq in July and August.
An additional 8,900 combat troops will be pulled out by December 2005. South Korea has been pressing for a slower withdrawal, stretched out until 2006. No further troop cuts are planned, one official said.
South Korea, with some 680,000 troops, has dramatically built up its forces over the past decade, the defense official said.
“This military is a world-class, professional military now,” the official said. “It had developed great capabilities over the last two decades, but the last decade in particular.”