Wolfowitz: Troop shift from South Korea 'long overdue'
SEOUL — A few months ago, in discussing why more soldiers were volunteering for assignments in South Korea than ever before, Area I Command Sgt. Major Jolanda Lomax made a statement even more prophetic than she might have imagined.
“When you PCS to Korea, the possibility of being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan within 90 days is slim to none,” she said.
But, she went on, “no place is really safe. Eventually, you will have to leave Korea and pay whatever dues you have to pay. You can’t avoid it.”
For 3,600 members of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, it’s time to pay the dues. After South Korean government officials in Seoul first leaked the news, Pentagon officials set off a storm of reaction in South Korea by confirming Monday the brigade will head from South Korea to Iraq later this summer.
And though 3,600 U.S. soldiers make up just two percent of the 138,000 projected to be in Iraq until 2005, that figure is almost ten percent of the 37,000 U.S. servicemembers annually stationed in South Korea since the last troop reduction here in 1991.
U.S. officials were quick to say the pending deployment would not affect deterrent capabilities in South Korea, pointing in part to $11 billion in technical upgrades to weapons systems here over the next three years.
“Due to our strengthened posture and the ability to quickly reinforce capabilities throughout the region, we can deploy forces from Korea without assuming additional operational risks,” Richard Lawless, deputy Defense undersecretary for Asia-Pacific policy, told reporters in Washington.
Bush administration officials “concluded well over a year ago that it was long overdue to reduce the strain on our Army that comes from having these continuous, one-year unaccompanied tours in Korea,” Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense, told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday.
“So we had [already] planned on some reductions, we need an extra brigade in Iraq, and in fact the brigade in Korea is ideally suited for that.”
U.S. military officials in South Korea simply confirmed Tuesday a redeployment plan was drafted. They could not provide details on how the move would take place, whether the 2nd Brigade would use equipment positioned in South Korea or whether the brigade would return to South Korea after its one-year deployment in Iraq.
South Korea media was rife with speculation the move was a prelude to larger cuts in the U.S. troop presence.
“The plan to transfer USFK for the sake of stability in Iraq leaves us wondering if the ROK-U.S. alliance is being loosened,” read the lead editorial in the national Dong-A Ilbo newspaper. “We cannot help feeling uneasy having so many troops sent away at a time when our peninsula is not at ease with the nuclear issue in North Korea.”
The Chosun Ilbo, another leading daily, questioned whether the South Korean government was “consulted” instead of “informed” by the U.S. side, and went so far as to speculate if the troop move “would lead to the total withdrawal of U.S. troops in the future.”
Several Seoul-based analysts, including a leading commentator at the Korean Defense University, said in interviews the move would split South Korean public opinion. With the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis, the South Korean public takes the Iraq announcement as coming at a curious time, analysts said.
Another lingering concern is China. This week, the Chinese government ratcheted up warnings against Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, who won a second term in office in March by campaigning on the claim Taiwan is an independent nation.
The Chinese government issued a statement this week telling Chen to stop what China called Taiwan’s “dangerous lurch toward independence” or Taiwan would face “destruction.”
Under its “one China” policy, the United States does not officially recognize Taiwan as an independent nation but has promised to defend it if necessary from a Chinese invasion.
But U.S. officials appeared more immediately focused on North Korea.
On Monday, senior defense officials familiar with the region’s issues briefed Pentagon reporters on the condition of anonymity. They were was asked to comment on what message the troop movement sends to Pyongyang.
“The message to the North Koreans has been very clear,” one official said. “It isn’t a numbers issue, it’s a capabilities issue. And we’ve stressed that to them. We’ve actually seen them react from time to time about capabilities.”
What if, a senior defense official was asked, North Korea takes the shift as a sign of weakness?
“I don’t believe they’ll get that message,” the official said, according to a Pentagon transcript of the session. “Certainly they understand how our capabilities in the region and on the peninsula have increased, and I don’t believe that they’ll take that message away.
“If they do, it’s a mistake.”
Lisa Burgess contributed to this report from the Pentagon.