WASHINGTON — In a move certain to cause diplomatic consternation to a key U.S. ally, a bipartisan group of senators Friday proposed the reduction of U.S. forces in South Korea by 10,000 soldiers over the next three years.
"Debate ought to begin about our presence to Korea," said Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), one sponsor of the bill introduced Friday on the Senate floor.
"This is not Korea-bashing," said Bumpers, who complained that the prosperous Asian nation should contribute more to its own defense. "I don't know if they're not big grown-up boys capable of taking care of themselves."
Under the proposed reduction, almost a fourth of the U.S. troops now stationed in South Korea would be withdrawn by 1992, leaving 21,000 Army troops and 12,000 Air Force personnel to help that nation defend itself against attack from North Korea.
"We think that a planned, gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea in the future is a timely and appropriate matter for mutual examination and discussion between the Republic of Korea and the United States," the lawmakers wrote in a Thursday letter to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
The proposal comes less than a month before Cheney is scheduled to host Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang Hoon at an annual meeting between the two countries' senior defense officials.
State Department officials said that Lee plans to ask Washington for an assurance that the United States will withdraw no U.S. troops without consulting Seoul. South Korea has said that any withdrawal of U.S. forces would be premature unless it followed a comprehensive peace settlement between North and South Korea. The two sides are still technically at war, but have observed an uneasy truce since 1953.
"We are paying $2.6 billion annually to maintain a force of over 43,000 American troops there," the senators wrote to Cheney. "Given Korea's stunning economic growth and (its) expanding military capability, we don't think that the number of American forces permanently stationed in Korea should be arbitrarily fixed at the current level."
Cheney declined to comment on the senators' proposal. Pentagon officials, however, acknowledge that with reductions in U.S. forces in Europe and growing budget problems at home, the Defense Department will come under increasing pressure to rethink the size of the U.S. commitment to Korea.
But growing Korean nationalism also has contributed to the unwillingness of Congress to maintain indefinitely a large U.S. troop presence there. After months of protests by Korean dissidents, the Defense Department is shutting several key U.S. military facilities in downtown Seoul and transferring them outside the city.
In February, however, President Bush told the Korean National Assembly that the United States would maintain the current strength of its forces and promised that no withdrawals would be made without consultation. A Korean official said that his country hopes to seal that agreement during the July 17-19 meeting between Lee and Cheney.
Sens. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) joined Bumpers in signing the letter to Cheney. Sens. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) joined Bumpers in sponsoring the legislation.