WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld indicated Thursday that he wants U.S. troops stationed near the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea to be moved farther from the heavily defended zone, shifted to other countries in the region or brought home.
The South Korean military, which has relied on American forces to deter an attack from communist North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953, is capable of defending the border itself, Rumsfeld said.
South Korea has an economy 25 or 35 times bigger than North Korea's, he said, and "has all the capability in the world of providing the kind of upfront deterrent that's needed."
The U.S. military, on the other hand, could play more of a secondary role by arranging its forces at an "air hub" and "sea hub" and as reinforcements for the South Korean front-line troops, he said during a question-and-answer session with a group of Pentagon civilians and troops.
President Bush said later he expects South Korea and other nations with a stake in facing down the North's nuclear threat to present a united front.
China, South Korea, Japan and Russia "must stand up to their responsibility, along with the United States, to convince Kim Jong Il that the development of a nuclear arsenal is not in his nation's interests," Bush said.
The Bush administration wants to ensure that other nations do not provide North Korea with the massive economic assistance it has demanded from the United States.
There now are about 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, mostly Army soldiers but also members of the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and special operations forces. It is the second largest concentration of American forces in Asia behind Japan, which has about 45,000.
"I suspect that what we'll do is we'll end up making some adjustments there," Rumsfeld said. "Whether the forces would come home or whether they'd move farther south on the Peninsula or whether they would move to a neighboring area are the kinds of things that are being sorted out."
Last week Richard Lawless, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, met with South Korean defense policy officials to discuss the future of U.S. troops there.
According to a Pentagon statement released Thursday, Lawless and Lt. Gen. Cha Young Koo, the deputy defense minister for policy, agreed that U.S. forces should move away from Seoul, the capital. It currently hosts the 8th Army's Yongsan headquarters, although it was not clear whether Lawless and Cha agreed on a new location. They did agree on a general approach to changes.
"Both parties agreed that adjustments to the combined capabilities must be done carefully in consideration of the overall security environment, including the military threat from North Korea," the statement said.
In response to recent North Korean moves to reactivate its nuclear weapons program, the Pentagon this week is sending 12 B-52 bombers and 12 B-1 bombers from U.S. bases to Guam, within striking distance of the Korean Peninsula. President Bush has said he believes the nuclear crisis can be resolved peacefully, but last week he said he had not ruled out a military solution.
The major Army combat unit in South Korea is the 2nd Infantry Division, based at Camp Red Cloud, a 164-acre site on the northwestern edge of the city of Uijongbu, immediately south of the DMZ. U.S. troops no longer patrol regularly inside the DMZ, which stretches about a mile north and south of the Military Demarkation Line that has separated the two Koreas since the end of the war.
The main Air Force units are the 51st Fighter Wing at Osan Air Base south of Seoul and the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan, further south of Seoul on the Yellow Sea coast.
In his remarks at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld said the current arrangement of U.S. forces in South Korea is too inflexible.
"We still have a lot of forces in Korea arranged very far forward where it's intrusive in their [South Korean] lives, where they really aren't very flexible or useable for other things," he said.
In a similar vein, Rumsfeld said there is a need to adjust the U.S. force structure in Western Europe, where about 100,000 troops are permanently based, mostly in Germany. He noted that in the 21st century the Pentagon needs more flexibility in moving and using forces without the need to obtain permission from governments that host the forces. He mentioned, as an example, Austria's recent refusal to permit U.S. troops in Germany to transit Austria en route to the Persian Gulf.
"The taxpayers of the United States can't have one military for the United States and another that's only useable when country A, B, C or D allows" it, he said.