SEOUL — The decision to send 2nd Infantry Division soldiers from South Korea to Iraq was made in part because the “tripwire” role played by U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula is “kind of useless” and “counterproductive,” a top Pentagon official said Tuesday in Washington.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said the troop move this summer was part of a larger repositioning of U.S. forces worldwide.
But the comments immediately sparked fresh speculation in South Korea that the planned shift of 3,600 2nd Brigade troops to Iraq later this summer was only the first move in a larger drawdown of U.S. forces on the peninsula.
Also causing a fuss was the tenor of the comments.
“We have moved troops off of the DMZ, where, frankly, they were performing nothing except a kind of useless — and indeed I would say counterproductive — tripwire function,” Wolfowitz said, according to a Pentagon transcript.
“We had planned on some reductions” in South Korea, he said. “We need an extra brigade in Iraq and in fact the brigade in Korea is ideally suited for that.”
U.S. officials in South Korea and Washington repeatedly have said no decision has been made on whether the brigade would return to its bases near the Demilitarized Zone after its yearlong deployment to Iraq.
Under agreements reached in the past year, U.S. Forces Korea says it will close Yongsan Garrison by 2007 and move troops stationed there further south, out of Seoul. Under the Land Partnership Plan, the U.S. also is committed to consolidating and moving several 2nd Infantry Division camps north of Seoul.
The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade denied Wednesday it had been told the troop move to Iraq was a harbinger of further cuts to come. But at an afternoon news conference, officials acknowledged the possibility would have to be discussed by South Korean officials.
Several newspapers and analysts criticized the South Korean government after the Iraq announcement was made, questioning whether the decision indeed had been made after consultations or whether it was the result of an American fiat.
Historically, the U.S. troop presence in South Korea has been likened to a “tripwire” that would force the United States into any conflict with North Korea. The term has been most frequently applied to the Joint Security Battalion, a U.S.-South Korean force which stands guard at Panmunjom in the DMZ.
On Tuesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon summed up the public’s reaction to the Iraq announcement. “There will be no security vacuum,” he said. “The psychological impact on our people is more of a problem than the relocation itself.”