.U.S. Considers Withdrawing Troops from South Korea
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters - 6 March) - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Thursday the stationing of U.S. troops near the border with North Korea has become intrusive to South Korea, and said forces could be moved southward or out of South Korea altogether.
Rumsfeld said Army Gen. Leon LaPorte, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, and others are considering ways to realign American forces on the Korea Peninsula. This comes as the United States is engaged in an increasingly tense crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
The United States has about 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea near the Demilitarized Zone separating that democracy from communist North Korea.
During a town hall-style meeting with Defense Department employees at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld said that to some extent the location of U.S. forces in South Korea and in Europe is a leftover from the Cold War.
"We still have a lot of forces in Korea arranged very far forward where it's intrusive in their lives and where they really aren't very flexible or usable for other things," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld said South Korea possesses an economy probably 25 to 35 times greater than North Korea's, adding that the South Koreans have "all the capability in the world of providing the kind of up-front deterrent that's needed."
"And 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'd move to some neighboring area are the kinds of things that are being sorted out. The same thing's true with our forces in Western Europe."
Rumsfeld's comments amplified remarks he made in Feb. 13 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Rumsfeld said U.S. officials are consulting with the South Korean government ahead of making a final decision.
The United States for half a century has maintained a stabilizing military presence in South Korea, since the Korean War.
New South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has asked the United States to study the bilateral relationship. The presence of American troops has become increasingly controversial in the past year, with some critics in South Korea saying the Bush administration has hindered closer ties with North Korea. There also is concern in South Korea about alleged crimes committed by U.S. troops.
White House and defense officials last month said the United States was considering shifts in global military deployments, including the thousands of U.S. troops in Europe. About 70,000 of the nearly 110,000 U.S. troops in Europe are in Germany, a vocal foe of a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq.
Rumsfeld did not state when a decision would be made, but said the Pentagon is "almost through the process of looking at our force structure" around the world. He added that whatever changes would not change that "we are engaged in the world (and) we care about assisting our friends and allies."