U.S., South Koreans fail to agree on timeline for withdrawal of American forces amid Seoul's concerns about defense against North

Friday, August 20th 2004, 8:44 am
By: News On 6

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ Top U.S. and South Korean defense officials failed Friday to agree on a timeline for the planned reduction of American forces on the divided peninsula amid Seoul's concerns the departing troops will weaken its defenses against North Korea.

The redeployment of some 12,500 troops away from South Korea is part of Pentagon plans for a worldwide realignment of American forces that President Bush has said would help the United States better respond to today's threats. His Democratic challenger John Kerry has criticized the move, saying it would embolden North Korea even as the international community seeks to get the communist nation give up its nuclear ambitions.

At talks Friday in the South Korean capital, the sides agreed 3,600 U.S. troops who have already left here for Iraq would be part of the redeployment. U.S. officials have previously said all the reassigned troops would depart by the end of 2005, bringing the total remaining to about 24,500.

But that timeline is now under discussion, U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Lawless said after two days of talks with his South Korean counterpart Ahn Kwang-chan, deputy defense minister for policy.

U.S. officials have insisted that a reduction in troops here won't lessen their fighting capability because of the advanced weapons in their arsenal. The moves are part of a transformation of the U.S. military championed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to make it a more mobile and flexible force suited to fight the war on terror.

``The very highest priority in the world outside the continental United States is the Republic of Korea and it is here where we will transform our forces first,'' Lawless told reporters.

But South Korea hopes the Americans keep forces in the area including rocket launchers aimed at countering North Korean artillery as well as Apache attack helicopters. Ahn said Seoul is seeking to ``minimize redeployment of forces vital to maintaining war deterrence capabilities against North Korea.''

American troops have been deployed here since the 1950-53 Korean war that ended in a truce _ leaving the two Koreas technically still at war. South Korea's some 650,000-strong military is believed to be outnumbered by a North Korean force that numbers about 1.1 million.