In a little noticed speech, President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea has once again disparaged his nation's alliance with the US and cast doubt on whether this partnership should be continued or dissolved.
President Roh told graduating cadets at the Korean Air Force Academy that South Korea was fully capable of defending itself against North Korea, thus undermining the reason for posting US combat forces in his country.
At the same time, the president asserted that the US would not be allowed to deploy US forces out of Korea without his government's approval, thus putting a crimp into Pentagon plans to forge US troops in Korea into a flexible force that could be swiftly deployed to contingencies outside Korea.
The US government has evidently chosen to ignore President Roh's remarks as scant reaction has come from Washington. E-mailed queries to the US military headquarters in Seoul asking for reaction have gone unanswered.
The commander of US forces in Korea, however, has reinforced, perhaps inadvertently, President Roh's views on the capability of South Korea's forces against North Korea. General Leon LaPorte, coincidentally speaking in Washington the same day, March 8, that Roh spoke in Seoul, told a Senate committee that North Korea's military forces were poorly prepared for armed conflict.
In particular, he said North Korea's air force was antiquated and struggling with maintenance. Where US and South Korean pilots averaged 15 hours a month of flight training, North Korean may get only 12 to 15 hours a year. On the ground, a unit on maneuvers could operate only six of its 12 vehicles because of shortage in supplies and fuel.
The US has already begun to reduce its troops in Korea and to turn over more duties to South Korea's forces. Last year, the US had 37,500 troops in South Korea. That is down to 32,500 today, with increments of 2,000 to 3,000 to be withdrawn yearly to bring the level down to 20,000 in 2008.
In his address at the Air Force Academy, President Roh said that 100 years ago, Japan, China, and Russia fought on Korean soil while Koreans "had no choice but to just watch helplessly." Now, he continued: "We have sufficient power to defend ourselves. We have nurtured mighty national armed forces that absolutely no one can challenge."
Even allowing for the exaggeration of a politician, that was a resounding statement. Not content with that, the president went on: "The armed forces have been exerting efforts to bolster our self-reliant defense capabilities.We must press ahead vigorously with the reforms of our defense already begun."
Pointing to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's plans for "strategic flexibility" that would assign US forces in Korea the mission of responding to crises elsewhere, Roh said: "We will not be embroiled in any conflict in Northeast Asia against our will. This is an absolutely firm principle we cannot yield under any circumstance."
That was generally seen as an attempt to prevent US forces from deploying to the Taiwan Strait in the event of hostilities between China and Taiwan. Roh, who campaigned on an anti-US platform and called for more self-reliance in defense, has been drawing Seoul closer to Beijing, which has also raised the question of how long he intends to maintain South Korea's alliance with the US.
Under Rumsfeld's orders, US forces will be moved from their present camps between Seoul and the 241km long demilitarized zone dividing the peninsula. They will be posted in consolidated camps 120km south of Seoul with quick access to airfields and ports through which they would ship out to other places of conflict elsewhere.