Showing a readiness to adjust one of the cornerstones of U.S. military policy in South Korea, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress on Thursday he might consider withdrawing some of the 38,000 U.S. troops stationed there.
Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would like to see some U.S. forces pulled away from their forward deployments in Seoul and along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, one of the tensest borders on Earth.
The remarks came as North Korea staged yet another rhetorical attack on the United States, saying it could hit U.S. targets anywhere in the world, and as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told another congressional panel that the North Koreans had rejected U.S. proposals for multinational talks on their nuclear programs.
Rumsfeld’s remarks were seen as likely to galvanize public attention in South Korea, where the issue of U.S. troop deployments has become highly politicized. Pentagon officials have been privately rethinking troop deployments in response to widespread anti-Americanism in South Korea, fueled in part by the cheek-by-jowl positioning of U.S. troops in the densely populated South Korean capital and its suburbs.
In addition, the U.S. is concerned about the growing exposure of U.S. bases in South Korea to missile or other attack by North Korea or other adversaries, said Derek Mitchell, a Korea security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
But Rumsfeld went further Thursday, saying in response to a question by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that some troops might be withdrawn, after consultations with the incoming South Korean government. Since 1995, the U.S. has assured Asian allies that it would keep its presence of 100,000 troops in East Asia and the 38,000 in South Korea.
“I’d like to see a number of our forces move away from the Seoul area and from the area near the ... DMZ and be more oriented toward an air hub and a sea hub, with the ability to reinforce so there’s still a strong deterrent, and possibly, with our improved capabilities of moving people, some of those forces come back home,” Rumsfeld said.
Retired Air Force Col. William Drennan, a Korea expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the deployment of U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula “just cries out for adjustment, particularly in a situation where increasing numbers of South Koreans are telling us that we’re no longer welcome there.”
Nevertheless, Rumsfeld’s comments will be interpreted by some in Seoul as a U.S. effort to “discipline” incoming President Roh Moo Hyun with an implied threat to scale down the American presence at a time of heightened tension with the North.
“Rumsfeld was putting down a marker: ‘You don’t want us there, we’ll leave.’ That’s very much a heartburn issue in Seoul right now. It’s very controversial,” Drennan said.
Roh was elected as part of an anti-American tide but has since expressed support for the U.S. alliance and a desire to keep U.S. troops in place. Last week, Roh sent an official delegation to Washington for lengthy meetings with Rumsfeld, Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Upon the delegation’s return, the South Korean media reported that Rumsfeld had mentioned the possibility of troop reductions during those discussions -- a report that delegation leader Chyung Dai Chul staunchly denied, according to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, a leading conservative daily in Seoul.
Meanwhile, a day after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported to the U.N. Security Council that North Korea had violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Powell and Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly told Congress that a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff is still possible.
“If we work carefully with our allies, make sure that our message is steadfast and clear, and that we are not trying to paint North Korea into some kind of a corner ... maybe we have a chance to come out with better scenarios,” Kelly told the Asia subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee.
The U.S. has said it will talk directly to the North Koreans but wants to do so within the context of the United Nations to make clear to the isolated regime that its nuclear programs are seen as a serious problem not just by the U.S. but by all of North Korea’s neighbors and the rest of the world.
But the Chinese, Russians and South Koreans want Washington to talk directly to Pyongyang as soon as possible, before North Korea makes good on what is seen as a threat to reprocess 8,000 spent plutonium fuel rods into nuclear weapons.
On Thursday, Powell told the House Budget Committee that North Korea, through low-level diplomatic contacts, had said “no, no, no” to talks that include the U.S., China, Russia and South Korea.
“We have to find a way to broaden the dialogue,” Powell said. “China is threatened, Russia is threatened.... So many other countries are affected.”
North Korea responded to the IAEA with a boast by Foreign Ministry official Ri Kwang Hyok that an attack on the U.S. “can be taken to all military personnel and all military commands of the United States in the world,” the news agency Agence France-Presse reported from Pyongyang.
“Wherever they are, we can attack them,” Ri was quoted as saying. “There’s no limit to our attack ability. The strike force of the Korean People’s Army will take on the enemy wherever he is.”
North Korea has a history of countering perceived threats with dire warnings that are never carried out, and analysts said North Korea’s response was an answer to the IAEA.
“But saying U.S. facilities all over the world are subject to a strike is a dangerous game,” noted Kim Joung Won, an analyst with the Sejong Institute in Seoul.
“They’re sounding more like [Osama] bin Laden.”
Meanwhile, there was further evidence Thursday that North Korea is proceeding with preparations to reprocess plutonium at its Yongbyon plant -- if it has not already begun to do so.
Photographs posted on the nonpartisan Web site GlobalSecurity.org appear to show that repairs were made in January to a leaking line apparently designed to supply steam to the Yongbyon reprocessing site, said GlobalSecurity head John E. Pike.
Steam is needed to heat solvents in the reprocessing of spent plutonium fuel. The coal-burning steam plant is close to but not part of Yongbyon, and it was not in use while the Yongbyon plant was mothballed under the nuclear freeze deal that North Korea agreed to in 1994, Pike said.
But it was reactivated in January, and subsequent images showed that steam leaks were fixed, and then the plant was shut down again later last month, Pike said.
Efron reported from Washington and Magnier from Seoul.