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U.S.: Rumsfeld Ends South Korean Visit Amid Questions About Military Presence

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld completed his visit to South Korea today, saying the country must learn to become more "self-reliant." The United States had previously denied that its plan to pull U.S. forces out of the South Korean capital, Seoul, presaged a cutback in the total number of U.S. forces in the country. But Rumsfeld's latest comments are now fueling speculation that Washington may be planning to reduce its presence on the peninsula.

Prague, 18 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld today wrapped up a delicate mission to South Korea, which focused on Washington's plans to reorganize its military contingent on the peninsula.

Washington currently maintains 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea -- many of them near the demilitarized zone separating the country from North Korea and at a large base in the heart of the capital Seoul. The United States has been touting a plan to pull back most of those forces to bases further south, in a move Washington promises will increase South Korea's overall military security.

But officials in Seoul have expressed concern that the repositioning of U.S. forces could weaken South Korea's defenses and might presage a withdrawal of some U.S. troops from the country altogether.

Rumsfeld, before leaving South Korea today, tried to reassure his hosts, saying Washington will undertake no unilateral moves and remains committed to strengthening its military capabilities in all of northeast Asia. "I've assured the [South Korean defense] minister that any changes to U.S. military posture in Northeast Asia will be the product of the closest consultation with our key allies," he said. "Most importantly, they will result in increased U.S. capabilities in the region."

Just how will moving U.S. forces back from the front line increase U.S. capabilities? Defense officials in Washington argue that pulling U.S. troops out of range of North Korean artillery massed on the other side of border will give its soldiers more flexibility in case of war.

That means that in a conflict -- especially a surprise attack initiated by North Korea -- the United States military would remain unscathed by Pyongyang's initial artillery volley, ready to respond, thanks to its superior air and missile technology.

That seems like a rational idea to the Americans, but it worries many South Koreans, who have been slow to warm to the idea of facing their northern enemies on the front line more or less alone. The thought is of special concern to Seoul's more than 10 million residents, who are within range of Pyongyang's artillery.

Aidan Foster-Carter, a leading Korea analyst based at Britain's Leeds University, told RFE/RL: "A lot of people in South Korea -- including, I think, the South Korean government -- are worried that what this may involve are two things: [Firstly,] that U.S. troops will no longer be in the front line. And whether or not that makes them more effective, it may be seen as weakening at least a symbolic commitment to the immediate defense of South Korea in the event of a North Korean attack. Secondly, they're also worried that as a result of these redispositions -- which will take place over several years; it's not going to happen tomorrow, by the way -- that the actual number of U.S. forces in South Korea -- currently at 37,000 -- might be reduced."

The irony is that as recently as last year, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets to protest the U.S. military presence in their country, following a traffic accident in which two Korean girls were run over by a U.S. military vehicle. South Korea's current President Roh Moo-hyun, who was campaigning for office at the time, also spoke of the need for a more low-key U.S. presence. But, as Foster-Carter noted, things look different today.

"It's one thing for South Koreans, in a certain mood, to say: 'We want to be more assertive, we're tired of being pushed around, being the junior partner.' But when the big partner says or does things which might be interpreted as saying: 'Right, we're leaving,' suddenly the boot is on the other foot," Foster-Carter said.

The shift illustrates South Koreans' mixed feelings about the U.S. military. Ideally, most South Koreans would like the United States to retain a strong military presence while maintaining near invisibility. That, of course, is hardly possible. But a reduction in overall U.S. forces may be in the offing.

Rumsfeld's words about South Korea needing to take greater responsibility for its future defense should be seen in a broader context, analysts say, and come as the U.S. Defense Department reassesses U.S. needs and capabilities worldwide.

"Whereas the old idea was that you plonked a whole lot of troops down in the places that you thought were the hot spots, in case they might be used sometime, you now don't do that," Foster-Carter said. "You have smaller forces. You don't withdraw them completely but the new emphasis is on mobility. You have your troops battle-ready, you're ready to airlift them to any corner of the globe in principle, and bring them in massive strength when you actually need to. So that will be an argument for having fewer people on the ground outside the U.S. itself anywhere."

More specifically, with America's overseas focus and resources likely to remain concentrated in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terror in the foreseeable future, the U.S. military presence in South Korea may have to be trimmed, Foster-Carter says. "The whole effect of 9/11, Al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, the decision -- which many may now regret, I dare say, even those who supported it -- to invade Iraq: All that rather suggests that it is West Asia rather than East Asia which is going to tie the U.S. down for a very considerable period of time," he said. "So there's that dimension."

Rumsfeld alluded to this when he said that America would devote its energies to ensuring that the "enormous success story" of South Korea over the past 50 years would be repeated in Iraq.

Experts say, however, that any removal of U.S. forces from South Korea in favor of Iraq or for redeployment back to the United States will be a long-term process. The final repositioning of U.S. forces out of Seoul and the demilitarized zone is not scheduled to be accomplished until the end of the decade.