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South Korea: Officials Concerned About U.S. Troop Reduction Plan

  • Jeremy Bransten

The United States' announcement that it plans to cut its military presence in South Korea by over 12,000 soldiers is causing concern in Seoul, with officials saying they will seek further talks with Washington on the issue. The U.S. plan is part of a broader military realignment strategy to meet what Washington says are the changing threats of the 21st century.

Prague, 8 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For several years, U.S. strategists have been working on a plan to realign U.S. military forces overseas to match current and future threats.

And the war in Iraq appears to be hastening those plans -- although not in the way Pentagon planners might have originally hoped.

Recently, officials in Washington leaked news to the media that U.S. bases in Germany will be downsized. And yesterday, the U.S. military officially announced its intention to pull one-third of U.S. soldiers -- or 12,500 troops -- out of South Korea by the end of the year 2005.
"We are probably up against the limits of American military land power, in that the manpower levels for the American military are too low for what they're trying to do in the globe."

The Pentagon says the changes are all part of America's long-planned global realignment of forces. And while independent analysts agree that such a realignment is necessary, they are surprised by the timing of this latest announcement from Korea, questioning whether it was not instead prompted by the need to strengthen the U.S. troop contingent in Iraq.

Sebastian Harnisch is a Korea expert at Germany's University of Trier. He says that at a time when six-party talks are being held over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, the United States is forfeiting a valuable bargaining chip by announcing a unilateral troop reduction on the peninsula.

"The most important issue -- and that's a diplomatic issue -- right now in Northeast Asia is the North Korean nuclear weapons program. As for this, we have to look at the six-part talks and there, I'm really concerned that we are not getting enough progress to stop this program. And this is a lost opportunity for a bargaining chip, that they haven't linked this troop withdrawal with the six-party talks," Harnisch says.

Harnisch is especially baffled at this evident lapse in U.S. diplomacy given that President George W. Bush's father, when he was president, managed to pull off just such a deal with Pyongyang -- using many of the same advisers currently in his son's administration.

"U.S. diplomacy towards the Korean peninsula is out of sync right now. Diplomacy and deployment are not going together -- especially so because the [former] Bush administration in 1991 did such a deal with the North Koreans, when [America] withdrew its tactical nuclear material from South Korea. They linked that to bilateral talks between South and North Korea back then," Harnisch says.

To be sure, there are advantages to be gained by the United States reducing its forces in South Korea. Experts say the deterrent effect against North Korea would not be compromised. Moreover, tensions with South Korean residents who oppose the presence of U.S. soldiers would be lowered, and regional cooperation could be fostered.

But Harnisch says it is important for the reduction to be made in cooperation with the government in Seoul.

"When we look into the future, of course, this withdrawal and possible withdrawal or repositioning [of the 53,000 U.S. troops] in Japan could instigate regional integration when it comes to military cooperation vis-a-vis the North Korean threat, between Japan and South Korea. That would be helpful. That would be a good outcome and I think that when it comes to South Korean defense policy, it would be helpful if the [South Korean] armed forces became more self-reliant in a way, although still integrated with the U.S. forces and probably more integrated with Japanese forces," Harnisch says.

But reactions today from officials in Seoul -- who insisted that no definitive deal has been struck and that further negotiations were needed -- appeared to indicate the United States had not coordinated its withdrawal announcement.

Charles Heyman, a British military analyst and editor of "Jane's World Armies," tells RFE/RL that the United States, by moving up its global military realignment plans, is trying to make a virtue out of necessity. But the Iraq war has exposed a glaring problem for the United States and its plans to police the planet: a shortage of troops.

"We are probably up against the limits of American military land power, in that the manpower levels for the American military are too low for what they're trying to do in the globe," Heyman says.

Before the war in Iraq, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld promoted the idea that because of its technological superiority, the U.S. military could defeat any enemy with far fewer soldiers than in the past. He was partially right. The first weeks of the Iraq operation went off like clockwork as President Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled like a deck of cards.

But the ensuing chaos and rebellion has shown that 130,000 U.S. troops, supplemented by a few thousand allies, are not enough to maintain stability in a country of 20 million people. According to Heyman and other military experts, in Iraq alone, half a million full-time professional troops are needed on the ground. And that is a number the United States simply cannot provide, especially given the fact that three times that number of troops would be required for a proper rotation. Outsourcing the task to contractors and reservists, he adds, is not a viable solution -- even if over a million eager volunteers could be found.

"This is an American weakness, an American problem, that they have all the tanks, the ships, and the planes that they need but they don't have the manpower. The American Army is not large when we look at it as being about 450,000. And mobilizing National Guard reserves is never the answer because no matter how keen they are, at the end of the day they're not as well-trained as you need soldiers to be in an insurgency operation," Heyman says.

Despite Pentagon denials, analysts such as Heyman believe the war in Iraq has proved to be a major drain on the U.S. military, putting into question plans for a genuinely effective global military realignment, given current staffing levels. The latest news from South Korea would appear to support that view.