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Wolfowitz Tries to Reassure S. Koreans

Pentagon official stresses the U.S. commitment to the region and tells citizens that troop repositioning will make them safer.

June 03, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — Tossing diplomatic laurels to South Korea's besieged new president, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz on Monday sought to reassure anxious South Koreans that redeploying U.S. forces will make the Korean peninsula safer.

But Wolfowitz also asked South Korean lawmakers to spend more on their own national defense. The country now spends about 2.7% of its gross domestic product on defense, while the United States spends 3.2% of its GDP. As the world's 12th-largest economy, "South Korea can certainly do more," Wolfowitz said.

President Bush dispatched Wolfowitz on a five-day tour of Asia in part to keep a promise to President Roh Moo Hyun to explain to skeptical South Koreans the U.S. military's plans for a global realignment of forces.

In South Korea, U.S. forces are frozen in Cold War-era positions that the Pentagon says don't take advantage of the American technological revolution in warfare and make it harder to address new security threats.

But some South Koreans fear the proposed changes on the peninsula would leave them more vulnerable to North Korean attack. Others think the changes would make it easier for U.S. forces to launch a direct preemptive attack on Pyongyang, the North's capital -- perhaps without consulting Seoul.

The Pentagon says it wants to pull its troops out of the Yongsan base in central Seoul, a move that had been agreed to 12 years ago but was never implemented. It would also like to move the 14,000 troops of the 2nd Infantry Division, now scattered in heavily populated areas between the South Korean capital and the Demilitarized Zone, to two new hubs south of the Han River, which runs through Seoul.

The idea is to consolidate air power in a hub of bases in the Osan-Pyongtaek area to the west, and create a sea hub in the east coast area of Chinhae-Taegu, a defense official said Monday.

Paradoxically, U.S. officials say, pulling U.S. forces away from the front lines would make them a more effective deterrent to North Korea. In their current bases along the DMZ, 2nd Infantry troops are in easy range of North Korean artillery. To fight an invasion from the Communist North, they would have to retreat under fire south to Seoul and regroup before moving north.

"Our present posture sacrifices a good deal of military capability for the symbolism of having some American soldiers up on the DMZ," a defense official said Monday. "That means that if North Korea were to attack, we would spend a lot of the first period of time reorganizing and regrouping in order to start hitting back."

If redeployed around the two southern hubs, U.S. forces could still be hit by North Korean missiles, but not by its artillery, another defense official said. The 2nd Infantry could bypass a bloody confrontation in the DMZ and strike inside North Korea with the kind of high-tech, fast-moving force the U.S. used so effectively in Afghanistan and Iraq, the official said.

A lightning attack on Pyongyang is North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's worst nightmare -- and therefore the proposed redeployments would strengthen deterrence, the U.S. argues.

However, some Korean officials question the timing and the wisdom of moving U.S. forces in the midst of a crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

"Most of the Korean people, including myself, want the 2nd Infantry Division to stay as it is now, at least until the North Korean nuclear issue is resolved, and the North Korean [military] threat decreases substantially to the point where Korean forces can be fully confident to counter the threat," a senior South Korean military official said Monday, echoing the position Roh expressed to Bush at their May 4 summit in Washington.

Wolfowitz repeatedly stressed that no decisions have been made and none will be until lengthy consultations are held with the South Koreans. Key Wolfowitz aides are heading back to Seoul today for a week of talks.

While Roh's position appears to be softening, the Bush administration understands that it also must share the burden of persuading the South Korean public.

Wolfowitz is the most senior Pentagon official to visit East Asia since Bush took office. In a whirlwind of speeches and news conferences, he has been hammering away at his two main "talking points": reaffirming the U.S. commitment to South Korea's defense and promising that no decisions would be made without thorough consultations with its government.

Roh's summit with Bush was a great success, according to both sides, and it appears to have put to rest suspicions in the Bush camp that the former labor lawyer was exploiting anti-American sentiment in South Korea for his political advantage.

However, Roh's success abroad has triggered a backlash among some core constituents at home. He returned to large demonstrations and charges that he had sold out to the Americans. Roh also faces allegations of family corruption and questions about his leadership abilities.

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