WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is moving 3,600 U.S. soldiers from bases in South Korea (search) to the conflict in Iraq (search) this summer, possibly marking a permanent reduction in the size of the American military force that has helped deter war on the Korean Peninsula for the past half-century.
Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division (search) will rotate into Iraq on one-year tours, senior Pentagon officials said Monday, confirming an announcement made earlier in Seoul.
The troops are among the 37,000 American troops permanently stationed in South Korea to deter an invasion by forces of communist North Korea (search). A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico, said the decision to move them to Iraq was made "at the highest levels of the U.S. government."
A senior defense official who discussed the matter on condition he not be identified said no decision has been made yet on whether the 2nd Brigade will return to its post in Korea after its Iraq tour ends. He said it was possible that a similar-size Army unit from elsewhere in the world would fill the gap at some point — or that the gap would not be filled at all.
The official described the move of the 2nd Brigade as a "relocation," and he explained it in the context of a longer-term reorganization and streamlining of U.S. forces in South Korea.
President Bush said in a telephone conversation Monday with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun (search) that the move was related to the June 30 transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government and that it in no way reduced America's treaty commitment to the defense of South Korea, officials in Seoul said.
A statement issued by Roh's office said the South Korean leader "expressed understanding." The two presidents also discussed South Korea's plan to send 3,600 of its troops to Iraq, a move that the Pentagon is counting on to make up for the loss of Spanish and other coalition troops.
The move reflects not only the Army's difficulty in finding enough soldiers for the next rotation of forces into Iraq later this year but also Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's push for greater flexibility in deploying troops based anywhere in the world, including the Korean peninsula.
Rumsfeld said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation on Monday that he remains hopeful that passage of a new United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq's political transition will lead more countries to consider sending troops to help U.S. forces stabilize Iraq.
"If we can get another U.N. resolution, my guess is there will be still additional countries that will be willing to put forces in there, and that relieves the stress on our force and our coalition partners," he said.
South Korean officials offered the first word Sunday that the United States wanted to move some of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed there to Iraq, and Pentagon officials said Monday that both the South Korean and the Japanese governments had been notified of the decision.
Jack Pritchard, a former State Department point man on North Korea and a career Korea specialist, said Monday the North Korean government will be looking for signs of the Pentagon making moves to offset the loss of ground combat power by adding more air power, for example. If no such offsetting moves are made, the North Koreas "will be as happy as pigs in mud," Pritchard said.
The issue is politically sensitive because of the concern about a potential North Korean attack across the Demilitarized Zone that has separated the North and South since the Korean War ended in a truce in July 1953. U.S. and South Korean forces remain on a war footing because the truce has never been converted to a peace treaty, and the two Koreas are technically still at war.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned the move, which he said showed that the Iraq war has "seriously strained" the capacity of the U.S. government to deal effectively with North Korea.
"What signal is the administration sending about our resolve if the U.S. is forced to move troops?" he said.
The Pentagon had planned to reduce the number of troops in Iraq to about 115,000 this spring, but an increasingly bloody insurgency forced a change in plans. The Pentagon announced this month that it now plans to keep about 135,000 troops in Iraq for at least the next year and a half.
The 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division is comprised of a powerful mix of maneuver and aviation forces, including two air assault infantry regiments and a mechanized infantry battalion. It is based primarily at Camp Hovey, near the city of Tongduchon, north of Seoul.