Rumsfeld, S. Koreans Find the Devil Is in the Details

Times Staff Writer

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld tried to patch up a host of differences with South Korea over issues ranging from the restructuring of U.S. forces here to the dispatch of South Korean troops to Iraq, but his meetings ended inconclusively Monday with many nagging questions still facing the alliance.

There was broad agreement in principle on several issues, but the U.S. and South Korea bogged down in negotiating the particulars. The South Koreans failed to fill in the details of a pledge made last month to send additional troops to Iraq -- leaving open questions of how many, what kind and when.

U.S. and South Korean officials also did not resolve questions concerning a planned relocation of U.S. troops out of a garrison in Seoul that has been headquarters for the force since the 1950s.

Moreover, differences emerged publicly over plans by the Pentagon to hand over some of the responsibilities of U.S. troops to the South Korean military. During a news conference with Rumsfeld, South Korean Defense Minister Cho Young Kil complained that the tensions with North Korea made implementing some parts of that hand-over "premature."

Rumsfeld put a bright spin on his visit, extolling the 50-year alliance between the United States and South Korea and pledging to strengthen ties in the years to come.

"Any changes in our military posture in Asia will be the product of the closest consultation among allies, and they will result in enhanced capabilities throughout the region," Rumsfeld said. In response to a question about whether the Pentagon would reduce its 37,000 troops in South Korea, he said, "It is not numbers, but the capability to impose lethal power where needed with the greatest flexibility."

If Rumsfeld was unhappy that the South Koreans appeared to be uneasy about a pledge to send troops to Iraq, he was careful not to show it. Repeatedly, he stressed that it was "up to each sovereign nation" to decide on troop contributions to Iraq.

This was Rumsfeld's first trip to South Korea as defense secretary and was envisioned as an opportunity to discuss a restructuring of U.S. forces in the Pacific. But in South Korea, as on an earlier stop in Japan, the escalating violence in Iraq stole the show.

As the defense secretary's entourage traveled through Seoul from a wreath-laying ceremony at the national cemetery to the presidential compound, it was followed by a determined band of booing, jeering protesters holding up antiwar posters.

South Korea is in an uproar about plans to send more troops to Iraq, a move widely opposed by citizens here. President Roh Moo Hyun has said he will send no more than 3,000 personnel, although key Cabinet members have argued for a larger dispatch.

The South Koreans now have 464 noncombat medics and engineers in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

"The South Korean government is having a very free and open debate about what they are going to do ... but it is having a corrosive effect on the alliance and distracting from some of the other important issues," said a diplomatic analyst in Seoul, who requested anonymity.

The larger issue facing the U.S. and South Korean militaries is a shift of forces near the demilitarized zone between the estranged Koreas. The Pentagon wants to pull back about 15,000 soldiers of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division from the DMZ to areas farther south on the peninsula, turning over some of the unit's responsibilities to the South Koreans. The idea is to make U.S. forces more flexible, more mobile -- and less likely to be pinned down in a cross-fire if fighting should erupt again with North Korea.

Cho, the defense minister, said Monday that he supported in principle the hand-over of responsibilities with a few exceptions -- namely the patrolling of the joint U.S.-South Korean security area inside the DMZ and providing fire in response to any attack by North Korean artillery.

"It would be premature to implement this transfer immediately," Cho remarked, referring to the continuing crisis over North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.

In a joint statement, Rumsfeld and Cho called on North Korea to "verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear weapons programs and to cease the testing, development and export of weapons of mass destruction, missiles and related technologies."

It also warned that use of weapons of mass destruction by the North would have "the gravest consequences."

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