Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - South Korea, along with Germany, will be among the countries most affected by the worldwide redeployment of American armed forces, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at the weekend.
And in a comment that will resonate in South Korea, he added that that the U.S. favored keeping troops in friendly locations.
Speaking at a press conference in Munich, where he was attending a NATO ministers meeting, Rumsfeld said the repositioning of forces was an "enormously complex" exercise that was still being worked on, "but clearly the countries that have the most substantial numbers of forces are going to be affected."
He named South Korea - where 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed - and Germany - home to about 70,000 - as countries where "we have a lot of troops."
Rumsfeld said the factors under consideration include the type of welcome the troops could expect in a host country. "I don't want our forces in places that are inhospitable and where people don't want them there."
Although Rumsfeld added that "Germany has been a hospitable place for our forces," he did not say the same of South Korea.
In the past two years, anti-U.S. sentiment has flared in South Korea, particularly among younger people who feel a greater affinity for fellow Koreans in the communist North than they do for the uniformed Americans who have been based there since the 1950-53 Korean War.
A series of large public protests were held in late 2002, following the accidental deaths of two schoolgirls, knocked down by a U.S. Army vehicle on a public highway.
The U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) at the time reported an increase in reports of assaults and verbal abuse against service personnel, and some businesses temporarily refused to serve American troops.
The period coincided with a presidential election campaign, during which liberal candidate - now president - Roh Moo-hyun was accused of trying to capitalize on the anti-U.S. feeling.
He told supporters that he would ensure the country's half-century-old military alliance would be better balanced, and that he would "not pander to the U.S. administration."
Once in office, Roh worked to mend fences, assuring USFK officers that the alliance was important and necessary, supporting the war against Saddam Hussein, and initiating moves to send Korean troops to help rebuild Iraq.
At the same time, and partly in response to the anti-U.S. sentiment, the U.S. and Korean militaries have been negotiating a withdrawal of the bulk of troops away from the demilitarized zone and, significantly, out of the large military base -- Yongsan Garrison, located in the center of Seoul.
But the Pentagon has long been hinting that a broader program of post-Cold War worldwide force redeployments will go a lot further, eventually likely to entail a reduction of the overall number of troops in Korea.
On a visit to Seoul last November, Rumsfeld said military power did not mean sheer numbers of troops, but how men and material were used. Korean media, and analysts interpreted the statement as a sign that the U.S. was planning troops cuts.
"Many diplomats and national security officials in the Korean government believe the reduction of U.S. troops is just a matter of time," Seoul's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said in a recent column.
The issue has prompted considerable speculation, invariably quelled by the U.S.
Last year, reports emerged citing unnamed defense officials as saying that many Asia-based U.S. troops might be relocated to bases in Australia. Both Canberra and the Pentagon dismissed them as wrong.
Last week, reports appeared in Korean, Japanese and U.S. papers about U.S. plans to radically restructure its forces in the Pacific, including the likely dismantling of USFK, a combined U.S.-Korea military command, and other key structures.
The USFK issued a statement denying the plans, and a Defense Department spokesman said "this speculation reported as fact does not help efforts to make decisions in consultations with our allies."
Responding to President Bush's proposal of a $48-billion increase in defense spending, and Rumsfeld's recent authorization of a temporary increase in the size of the Army, Cato Institute director of defense policy studies Charles Pe\'f1a last week called for a phasing out of "obsolete deployments" of U.S. forces in countries like Korea and Japan.
He called for "a more restrained military posture, particularly overseas deployments, many of which are holdovers from the Cold War and have little to do with safeguarding vital U.S. national security interests."
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