Mon, Jul 31, 2006 - Page 9 News List

US prepares to `turn out the lights' in S Korea

The need for military resources elsewhere and Washington's wariness of politicians in Seoul are some of the reasons behind the recent push to withdraw US forces

By Richard Halloran

Despite North Korea's missile-rattling on the Fourth of July, the US is moving ahead quietly with plans to reduce its forces in South Korea beyond levels already set.

Today, US forces in South Korea number 29,500, of which 15,000 are in the Second Infantry Division and 10,000 in the 7th Air Force. The rest are in logistics, communications and intelligence, and small Navy and Marine Corps units. The Pentagon has announced that those forces will be cut to 25,000 by September 2008.

Now under consideration is a further reduction to a small token force or possibly a total withdrawal sometime after 2008. As a senior US military officer, pointing to the US commander in South Korea, General B.B. Bell, said: "Bell's mission is to turn out the lights in South Korea."

The reasons for the coming phaseout:

The US Army and Air Force are stretched thin because of Iraq and Afghanistan. All US forces elsewhere must be prepared to respond to contingencies now unseen. Some US troops from South Korea have already served in Iraq and more are likely to deploy there as that conflict goes on.

The South Koreans are able to defend themselves with minimal help from the US if North Korea attacks.

Anti-Americanism is rampant in South Korea, starting with President Roh Moo-hyun. An expert at the Congressional Research Service, Larry Niksch, reported last week: "Polls have shown majorities or substantial pluralities of South Koreans in favor of the withdrawal of US forces."

At the same time, Seoul's posture toward North Korea borders on appeasement, compared with the hard line of the US. South Korea is also tilting toward China, the US' potential rival in Asia. And South Koreans are ever more critical of Japan, the US' foremost ally in Asia.

With US military spending soaring because of Iraq, the US$11 billion it had planned to spend on upgrading bases in South Korea could be better spent elsewhere, notably its military base on Guam.

The coming pullout of US troops will be the culmination of a gradual slide that started after the end of the Korean War. When the shooting stopped 53 years ago this month, the US had 326,800 troops in South Korea. By 1960, that had dropped to 55,800. It fell again, to 52,000, when more soldiers were needed in the Vietnam War.

The late president Park Chung-hee said in 1975 that in five years South Korea would no longer need US ground forces to help defend his country.

US president Jimmy Carter said in 1977 that US ground forces would be withdrawn in five years but ran into so much opposition from the Pentagon, Congress, South Korea and Japan that he dropped the plan.

Even so, the decline continued. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to bring the force down from 37,500 to 25,000 by the end of last year to make more units available for duty elsewhere. He was persuaded by South Korean military leaders, many of whom have been at odds with Roh, to hold that off until 2008.

Now, a combination of slipping US Army readiness, US distrust of the South Korean government, Seoul's attempts to veto US deployments from South Korea, disagreements over command structure, South Korean restrictions on US training and arguments over US bases being returned to South Korean control seem to have added impetus to US plans to withdraw.

On readiness, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Ike Skelton, wrote to US President George W. Bush last week lamenting that "Army briefing charts show two-thirds of the brigade combat teams in our operating force are unready."

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