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South Korea Details U.S. Troop Shift

Military headquarters and forces will move south, out of reach of Pyongyang's artillery.

June 06, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — In a historic realignment of its troops in Korea, the United States will pull back troops stationed near the demilitarized zone and relocate the headquarters in Seoul where U.S. forces have been garrisoned since the 1950s, South Korean officials said Thursday.

The widely anticipated changes are designed to give U.S. forces more flexibility in dealing with a recalcitrant North Korean regime apparently bent on developing nuclear weapons. They also will give South Korea more responsibility for its own security in recognition of the fact that, as the world's 12th-largest economy, it is no longer the struggling nation that the United States sought to rescue from communism during the 1950-53 Korean War.

The realignment was announced at the conclusion of a two-day, closed-door meeting here between South Korean and U.S. defense officials.

"Both sides agreed that our fundamental goal is to enhance deterrence and security on the Korean peninsula and improve the combined defense," a statement released by the South Korean Defense Ministry said.

The statement noted that the United States has promised $11 billion worth of investment to help the South Koreans improve their missile-defense systems and intelligence-gathering capabilities as they take over patrolling the DMZ.

At present, the United States is not expected to reduce its troops in South Korea, who number 38,000. Rather, they will be shifted southward to be out of range of North Korea's conventional artillery.

The U.S. troops stationed near the DMZ would be moved to unspecified locations south of the Han River, which runs through Seoul. This would involve more than 14,000 troops, mostly part of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division.

In addition, the United States is expected to move 6,000 of its 7,000 troops stationed in Seoul -- which is about 25 miles from the DMZ at the closest point -- to bases in Pyongtaek and Osan, south of the capital. Only a small number of U.S. troops would remain in the historic Yongsan headquarters in central Seoul.

"The essence of what we're trying to do is to make sure that the forces we have here on the peninsula can respond quickly and immediately," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told reporters Monday in Seoul. The unspoken implication of the changes are that they would put U.S. forces in a better tactical position if the Bush administration attempted a preemptive strike against North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons facilities or the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Although some have complained that the United States is weakening its long-standing commitment to defend South Korea, U.S. officials insist that the changes will mean a more intimidating American presence.

"Au contraire. The game plan is to enhance the deterrent. That's why we're doing it," said a diplomat, speaking anonymously in a recent interview.

U.S. troops have taken a leading role in policing the DMZ, the world's last Cold War frontier, since the Korean War as part of a U.N. mission. They are often referred to as a "tripwire" that would trigger automatic U.S. retaliation in the case of an attack by North Korea.

Last year, South Korea was rocked by anti-American demonstrations sparked by a road accident in which a U.S. Army minesweeper ran over two schoolgirls, killing them. But in recent months, the South Koreans have grown nervous about potential reductions in U.S. troop levels.

At a meeting last month in Washington with President Bush, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun asked that the realignment be delayed until the North Korean nuclear crisis is settled for fear that the North Korean regime would assume that the move was preparation for a military attack.

South Korean officials said Thursday that there was no agreement yet with the United States about when the moves will take place.


Chi Jung Nam of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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