U.S. military in South Korea to move farther south from border with North Korea

Thursday, June 5th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- The United States and South Korea agreed Thursday to withdraw U.S. troops from the tense Demilitarized Zone separating South Korea from communist North Korea.

The troops will be moved farther south, a joint statement said after two days of talks. The redeployment will remove U.S. military bases from the Korean front line for the first time since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The statement gave no timetable for the withdrawal. Even after the redeployment, U.S. troops will continue to train north of Seoul and close to the DMZ, it said.

In April, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. troops stationed near the Korean DMZ could be shifted south, moved to other countries in the region or even brought home under a global realignment of U.S. troops.

For half a century, the U.S. presence near the DMZ has symbolized the U.S.-South Korean military alliance and Washington's commitment to deterring hostilities on the divided peninsula. Tension remains high because of North Korea's suspected development of nuclear weapons.

About 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, most of them between the DMZ and Seoul, which lies 37 miles south of the border and within artillery range of North Korea.

"When (the redeployment from the DMZ) is fulfilled requires further discussions," said South Korean Assistant Defense Minister for Policy Lt. Gen. Cha Young-koo. "But you can see a broad picture of where we are headed."

Cha led the South Korean side in talks with the Americans led by Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for East Asia Richard Lawless.

On Tuesday, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said the Pentagon must modernize its troops to better counter a potential North Korean attack. He hinted that could mean smaller, more mobile forces working at greater distances from their opponents.

Rumsfeld's comments in April had spawned uneasiness in South Korea, which worries that reductions would put it at greater risk of a North Korean attack. President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met in May and reconfirmed their military alliance.

Last week, the U.S. military said it would spend an additional $11 billion over the next three years to strengthen its forces in South Korea. The plan included improvements to intelligence collecting and weapons upgrades as well as deployment of special, swift-action forces.

North Korea condemned that plan as a preparation for war.

Washington also wants North Korea to scale down its massive deployments of conventional troops near the DMZ.

Thursday's statement said the United States and South Korea remained committed to "improve the combined defense," but wanted to structure "U.S. forces in a manner that further promotes regional stability."

The two sides will first consolidate U.S. troops near the DMZ into two major bases, Camp Casey and Camp Red Cloud, north of Seoul. That process could begin as early as this year.

In a second phase of realignment, the troops will move to "key hubs south of the Han River," which bisects Seoul, the statement said.

U.S. officials have worried that their troops may be too close to the border. That means in an attack by the North, the Americans would either be killed in large numbers or forced to withdraw south before regrouping for a counteroffensive.

The U.S. forces also are close to urban areas, causing tension with residents. In June 2002, two girls were hit and killed by a U.S. military vehicle near the border, and their deaths triggered large demonstrations.