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Seoul Seeks Continued U.S. Presence, With or Without Korean Unification

TIMES STAFF WRITER

South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung Joo said Friday that even a unified Korea would need to maintain a security alliance with the United States.

“Our security need will continue with or without unification. For regional balance, as well, we need the United States in the (region)--in the security, political and economic areas,” the former Korea University professor of international politics said in his first interview with a foreign correspondent.

South Korea’s new president, Kim Young Sam, “feels the same way,” he added.

Many Koreans and Americans have assumed that unification of the two enemies that fought a bloody 1950-53 war would eliminate the need for American help to support security here. About 36,000 American troops are now stationed here, only to deal with potential threats from the Communist government in Pyongyang.

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A noted advocate of strong ties with the United States, Han, 53, said the presence of American troops might not be needed after unification as part of a continuing U.S.-Korea alliance. But he did not rule out keeping them here.

Han expressed his government’s pleasure that President Clinton has given no indication that he might resume or accelerate a suspended program of American troop withdrawals launched by the George Bush Administration.

“I don’t expect any strong clamor (in the United States) to reduce the American presence in the area and in Korea,” he said. “It is in the interest of the United States to have Korea as a strong ally in this area where there is a lot of competition going on among the major powers--Japan, China and, I suppose, Russia. . . . And even in an economic sense, it is not a loss to the United States. It costs less for the United States to keep troops here than at home.”

He added that South Korea is willing to increase its payments to support the American troops here. “We have been increasing our contributions, and I would expect that process will probably continue,” he said.

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Han said the armed forces of the two Koreas would be drastically reduced after unification. The two Koreas now maintain armed forces totaling 1.6 million--625,000 in the south and 975,000 in the north. The figures of 400,000 to 460,000 for a combined post-unification army, navy and air force--numbers cited in a recently announced National Defense College study--"would be in the ballpark, although I personally would prefer a smaller number,” he said.

Although Kim, in his Feb. 25 inaugural address, predicted that Korea would be reunified by the year 2000, Han said the president was referring to a likelihood that a “process of integration” would be under way by that time. The foreign minister offered no forecast for when unification might occur.

Han said South Korea’s concern over North Korean development of nuclear weapons has grown “more serious than before” with reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency that indicate the north may have produced more plutonium than earlier suspected. “We have to look into both . . . the possibility that they already have enough material to manufacture a bomb or bombs (and) their capability to produce material to manufacture bombs,” he said.

Major economic exchanges with the north--"licensing, economic cooperation, investment--will not occur unless the nuclear issue is resolved,” he said. But he said the new Seoul government might soften some of the south’s proposals for north-south nuclear inspections. “We probably should not insist on (an inspection) regime that we thought of a year or a year and a half ago,” Han said.

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The former government here had demanded that both sides allow unannounced inspections at any site in the other’s territory to implement a Seoul-Pyongyang agreement in December, 1991, that bans nuclear weapons from the peninsula.

Ending acerbic relations with Japan rooted in the 1910-45 Japanese colonial role of Korea will require “political will” by leaders of both countries, he said, noting that, “Japan has to walk the last mile” in expressing penitence for the past. The immediate issue is for Japan to make amends for forcing Korean women to serve as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers in World War II, he added.


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