The United States extended the tours of 2,800 U.S. soldiers in South Korea by three months Monday because some of their replacements are being sent to the Persian Gulf for a possible attack against Iraq.
The decision comes as the United States and South Korea prepare for a month of war games to practice defensive maneuvers. North Korea criticized the maneuvers, saying they are "escalating the military threat" toward the North and sabotaging reconciliation projects on the divided peninsula.
Tensions are running high on the peninsula because of a dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons development. The United States and its allies have urged the North to give up its nuclear ambitions, while Pyongyang has accused Washington of planning a pre-emptive military attack.
But U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Steven Boylan said tensions in Korea weren't the reason for the decision. He said the troops' replacements were being diverted to the military buildup in the Gulf or elsewhere.
"This has nothing to do with the perceived nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, but has everything to do with our ability to perform our main mission of deterrence," Boylan said.
Troops with the Eighth U.S. Army previously scheduled to leave between March 1 and May 31 are affected by the order, Boylan said.
The United States has maintained a heavy troop presence in South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice. There are currently about 37,000 U.S. troops based there.
Outgoing Korean President Kim Dae-jung, in his farewell speech Monday, said the U.S. military presence in South Korea is a regional "stabilizer" that should be continued even if North and South Korea one day reunify.
"The existence of the U.S. military in South Korea is necessary for now but also for the future after the unification," Kim said. "The South Korea-U.S. military alliance is beneficial to both sides."
The U.S. military announced last week that it will conduct the exercises with South Korea next month. It said the annual maneuvers are not related to the dispute over North Korea's nuclear programs.
In a commentary carried by North Korea's official KCNA news agency, the communist nation said the war games were aimed at blocking reunification and a warming of relations that began with a landmark summit between the nations in 2000.
It also said the maneuvers would only aggravate tensions.
"The South Korean military authorities are following the U.S. criminal policy of aggression ... thus escalating the military threat," KCNA said.
North Korea counters that the drills will undermine a fragile reconciliation process with South Korea that includes reunions of separated families, cross-border rail and road links and plans for a special economic zone in the North financed in part by the South.
The U.S. military command in Seoul described the joint drills as "defense-oriented" and designed to improve the U.S.-South Korea forces' ability to defend South Korea against "external aggression."
The exercises will take place March 19-26 and March 4-April 2.