Mon, Aug 23, 2004 - Page 9 News List

US withdrawal needs careful consideration

The Bush administration's unilateral decision to pull its troops out of Japan and South Korea could seriously affect the security of both those countries

By Byung-joon Ahn

The United States' planned withdrawal of troops from Asia, which President George W. Bush announced on Aug. 16, need not harm peace and stability in the region in general and South Korea in particular. But a key condition for a smooth redeployment of US troops is close consultations by America with its allies, something it has not done well up to now.

South Korea and Japan need to have their views taken into serious account if this now inevitable withdrawal is to succeed. By contrast, unilaterally announcing the withdrawal -- and then unilaterally implementing it -- may harm the very purpose that the remaining US troops in Asia are intended to serve: assuring deterrence, stability, and nonproliferation in Korea and Asia.

The withdrawal plan is causing countless worries. In Japan, there are concerns that it will make the country America's front line command post in Asia, possibly beyond the scope of its bilateral security treaty with the US. One result is that China feels nervous about the implications of any expansion of the American-Japanese military partnership. But the impact of the US' planned troop withdrawals is felt most keenly in South Korea. In June, the Bush administration revealed its plan to withdraw some 12,500 of the 37,000 US soldiers stationed in South Korea by the end of 2005. These include 3,600 troops from the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, who are already earmarked for redeployment in Iraq. The US Defense Department justifies this change as part of the so-called "Global Posture Review" that it has been carrying out to provide more flexibility and mobility in deploying troops to more urgently needed places around the world. But the unilateral nature of the announcement, and the abrupt timing of the plan has incited alarm in South Korea, and perhaps in Japan, that withdrawal could pose serious risks to the vital role that US forces have performed in deterring another war in Korea.

South Koreans genuinely fear that the plan may weaken deterrence by sending North Korea -- which is demanding a US military withdrawal while refusing to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions -- the message that intransigence pays. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that North Korea maintains an army of 1.1 million troops. Moreover, the manner in which the Bush administration unveiled its withdrawal plan has weakened the credibility of the US-Korean alliance. The US' unilateral announcement has fuelled rumors to the effect that withdrawal must have something to do with the rising tide of anti-Americanism in South Korea, and especially with the country's reluctance and delay in dispatching an additional 3,600 of its own soldiers to Iraq.

The Bush administration tries to rebut these charges by saying that the plan will not weaken the deterrence capabilities of US forces, for its far more powerful air and naval presence in the area will be maintained. Moreover, the US plans to strengthen South Korea's own forces by supplying some US$11 billion worth of high-technology equipment over the next five years. Militarily, this argument does make sense. Politically and psychologically, however, the method, let alone the timing and implementation of the withdrawals, raises many questions about the ongoing viability of the US-Korean security alliance, for the alliance now seems adrift, without a common purpose and with little direction from either side. Yet the Bush administration insists: "The US views South Korea as a strong and steadfast ally. We are committed to South Korea's security and to our alliance and partnership with Seoul."

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