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"Allies Should Help When US Is in Trouble"
American Expert Argues in His Recent Article
Special Contribution
By Larry A. Niksch
2nd ID soldiers on M1 tank
Courtesy US Defence Dept.
The decision of the US Department of Defense to withdraw one of the two heavy brigades — 3,600 troops — of the Second Infantry Division from South Korea for deployment to Iraq by August 15, 2004 is causing consternation in both Seoul and Washington.

However, the South Korean (ROK: Republic of Korea) government has responded calmly and unemotionally. ROK officials have known for months that this was coming.

Considerable evidence of pending troop withdrawals has existed since mid-2003. I stated on Mar. 12, 2004 at a conference in Washington sponsored by Korea's Sejong Institute that reductions of U.S. troops in South Korea were certain and that the US and ROK governments needed to plan for it rather than continue to issue denials that troop withdrawals were contemplated.

The meaning of the brigade's withdrawal for the United States is clear. It is the direct result of the growing strains on US Army manpower caused by Iraq and other commitments in the "war on terrorism."

The recent decision to keep 138,000 US troops in Iraq indefinitely rather than reduce the number to 115,000, and the extension of tours of duty of units already in Iraq, requires that additional troops come from countries previous untouched, including Japan and Korea.

A USFK (US Forces in Korea) soldier
These decisions on troops, however, also reflect the mounting difficulties faced by the United States in Iraq: the inability of the US military to defeat the insurgency, mounting religious strife, and uncertain effectiveness of the Bush administration's strategy to create a democratic political structure in Iraq. Iraq also has speeded up the Pentagon's longstanding plan to restructure the US Army away from an organization based on combat divisions to one focused on smaller, mobile brigade-sized units.

The timetable for re-structuring of the Second Infantry Division thus has been accelerated. The restructuring of the division into two independent brigades will leave the Second Division existing in name only. The withdrawn brigade may not return to South Korea.

An objective reading of current trends, especially related to the war on terrorism, leads to a conclusion that a future withdrawal of the division's other brigade and a reduction of US support troops are very possible. The US ground combat presence in South Korea could shift from a permanent presence to a rotational system under which an Army brigade or brigades would operate in South Korea for a fixed period of time and then would be replaced by other brigades.

This would be similar to the rotational system the US Air Force already operates to deploy some of the F-15 fighters stationed on Okinawa into South Korea. Such changes also would likely bring about changes in the US military command organization that reportedly are under consideration within the US Pacific Command.

2nd ID troops in drill Courtesy Ohmynews
The meaning of these changes for South Korea is less certain, but it does not appear to involve acute dangers. Withdrawal of the brigade is not likely to increase the North Korean military threat to South Korea. North Korea still will know that an attack on South Korea will involve the United States.

President Bush's recent telephone call to President Roh reinforced the US defense commitment to South Korea. The Pentagon is promising military compensatory measures to maintain deterrence. While US ground forces are under strain, the United States has ample air and naval forces to reinforce the Western Pacific. US heavy bombers already have returned to Guam.

During the 1980s, I concluded from Pyongyang's commentary on US forces that the component of US Pacific forces that created the greatest deterrence within the minds of the North Koreans were the B-52 bombers on Guam that exercised regularly near the Korean Peninsula. North Korea also understands that China would not support aggression against South Korea and that Pyongyang would risk China's "life support" aid, including food and fuel for the North Korean military.

2nd ID soldiers in drill
Courtesy Chosun
But the greatest assurance may be North Korea's own weaknesses in its conventional forces, which have progressively grown since 1990: obsolete offensive weaponry 30 to 45 years old, fuel shortages which prohibit big unit exercises, a collapsed military industry, chronic food shortages even in front-line units, and malnourished draftees that led North Korea in 2003 to reduce the minimum height requirement for draftees from four feet and 11 inches to four feet and two inches.

An objective conclusion is that North Korea no longer has the capability to launch a sustainable invasion across the DMZ. Nevertheless, if the ROK and US military commands want an "insurance policy" on this, they have the option of keeping a small number of US troops two or three battalions in strategic positions south of the DMZ to maintain a "trip wire."

Withdrawal of the brigade also is unlikely to add limitations to US or ROK policies toward the nuclear issue with North Korea. US limitations are serious, but these are due more to the absence of an effective US diplomatic strategy rather than US troop deployments.

Withdrawal of the brigade hopefully may have the positive effect of dispelling the widespread belief among South Koreans that the US plan to remove the Second Division from the DMZ masks a Bush administration plot to attack North Korea. If the United States were plotting to attack North Korea, it would not be withdrawing army units from South Korea and Marines from Okinawa for deployment to Iraq. Perhaps, South Koreans will adopt a more critical view of North Korea's propaganda strategy to convince them of a US plot of aggression.

Only South Koreans will determine whether the withdrawal of the US brigade will affect South Korea's decision to send 3,000 troops to Iraq. The Iraq situation is not good. The United States is in trouble. But when countries are in trouble, that is the time when allies matter the most.

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Mr. Larry Niksch serves as a specialist on East Asian political and security issues at the Congressional Research Service (CRS). An expert on nuclear and security issue on Korea he has authored a number of papers and books including "North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program" and "Korea: Current Issues and Historical Background."






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