The Washington Post and others report
tonight that American officials have officially announced their decision to radically alter the United States military footprint in South Korea. Currently, the American 2nd Infantry Division sits astride and below the border with North Korea, in a position that's quite vulnerable to a North Korean first strike. American forces are also dispersed among several small camps, in an extremely inefficient arrangement. This redeployment would move America's main combat force in Korea to two, consolidated "hub bases" south of Seoul from where they could mount a response to any North Korean aggression.
A joint statement by U.S. and South Korean officials said American troops will be pulled back to positions at least 75 miles from the DMZ, and will abandon a large base they occupy in downtown Seoul. The move from the DMZ will free about 18,000 U.S. troops to be more mobile, and they will be replaced by soldiers in a modernized South Korean army, officials said.Analysis:
No precise schedule has been announced for the change, although U.S. officials have said the new deployment may begin this year. The South Korean government is seeking a delay until current tensions over North Korea's nuclear program are eased.
Officials said the move would not immediately reduce the 37,000 U.S. troops posted in South Korea.
The statement said the redeployment would "enhance security" and would be done "taking careful account of the political, economic and security situation on the peninsula and in Northeast Asia."
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The two-mile wide, 155-mile-long DMZ has become a de facto border between North Korea and South Korea, which never signed a peace treaty and still are technically at war. The DMZ often is called the most heavily guarded border in the world. During a 1993 visit, then-President Bill Clinton referred to it as "a stark line between safety and danger."
U.S. and South Korean troops face North Koreans just feet from each other at the Joint Security Area on the DMZ, where periodic negotiations are held. The hostility there is palpable. Two U.S. soldiers were killed there in a fight with North Koreans in 1976.
But the bulk of patrols along the DMZ already are conducted by South Korean troops, part of a well-equipped, well-regarded 650,000-member military force. U.S. troops will continue to train with them at positions near the border, today's statement said.
In fact, deterrence along the border long has relied on the U.S. ability to call in overwhelming air attacks and firepower -- and ultimately on a nuclear threat. U.S. troops have been called a "tripwire" -- a force whose sacrifice in case of an invasion by the million-man North Korean army would guarantee U.S. retaliation.
As The Post says, this was not a surprise. Leaks made their way into the Los Angeles Times earlier this week about this move, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz presumably made his trip to Korea this week to confirm the details of the new arrangement. Also, the Bush Administration appears to be pursuing a policy of coercive engagement with Korea, and this move signals a de-escalation of military tensions on the peninsula which have persisted since the North Korean announcement that they had nuclear materials (and possibly nuclear weapons).
This move has larger implications for the rest of America's forces in the Pacific, and the world. First, it seems likely that we will pull other forces in Korea back from the war footing they sit on today. This makes sense tactically, because we're hopelessly exposed to North Korean attacks in these positions. It also makes sense strategically. In theory, a redeployed and consolidated 2nd Infantry Division
could deploy its forces elsewhere in the Pacific theater when necessary, without remaining tied down in Korea. If unrest broke out in Indonesia, or we needed more combat troops in the Philippines, the 2ID soldiers could deploy from Korea to those locations.
Today's news may also represent a paradigm shift in the way the Army mans its Korea garrison. Currently, the Army uses an "individual replacement system" to send soldiers to and from Korea for 1-year unaccompanied "hardship" tours. This is a horrendously inefficient system that creates real problems for unit discipline, morale and cohesion -- to say nothing about soldiers' domestic relations. A number of forward-thinking officers
adopting a unit-based manning model for the Army, and possibly a unit-rotation model for Korea like that used today for Bosnia and Kosovo. Moving America's forces to these new bases might support that plan if the new bases are designed as temporary way stations, rather than permanent garrisons like Camp Casey north of Seoul. More to follow...More on Korea...
At least one reader disagrees with my assessment that this move represents a signal of de
-escalation to North Korea. Instead, this represents a consolidation and reorganization of American forces in preparation for imminent hostilities with the north. That's certainly one way to look at it, and a plausible one as well.
American forces will certainly be made more efficient by this move. If greater efficiency frees up more resources (time, money, maintenance dollars, etc) for combat training, then American forces will also become more lethal and combat-ready. (This assumes that the Pentagon does not rob Korea to pay for Iraq.) In theory, American forces could also coil south of Seoul for an attack on the north, with the ability to assemble into combat formations outside the range of North Korean artillery.However, I disagree with this net assessment
. American and South Korean forces live on a hair trigger right now. One incident could escalate rapidly because of these forces' proximity to each other. I think that proximity has a deterrent effect, since U.S. casualties would probably have the effect of bringing us into a massive war that the North has already lost once. But the proximity is also dangerous. Having that many young soldiers, weapons and ammunition in such close proximity is a dangerous way to keep the peace. Pulling our soldiers back to a position south of Seoul may be a way to reduce the chances of something occurring there. At least, that's my gut feeling from my time there in the 2nd Infantry Division.More on Korea II...
What's the most likely scenario though for North Korea? I don't think it's for a North Korean invasion of South Korea, circa 1950. I think the most likely scenario is that North Korea collapses, sparking one of the largest humanitarian crises in history. If you think Iraq and Afghanistan were hard to rebuild, wait until you see North Korea. This is a country that, when night comes and satellites fly over the region, appears almost entirely dark from a lack of electricity. South Korea has even started to build hospitals and infrastructure near the DMZ in order to bear the brunt of the rebuilding effort, although I don't think it's enough. Given the problems we're having in Iraq right now with nation-building, I hope someone's thought long & hard in the Pentagon about how we'd do it in Korea -- especially if we had to do the two missions at the same time.