The United States has announced plans to send several thousand more soldiers to Iraq this summer.
Part of the military's latest global deployment strategy involves withdrawing one-third of the 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea by the end of next year, 3,600 of whom will be sent to Iraq in the next few months, Kim Sook of the South Korean Foreign Ministry in Seoul said Monday.
U.S. troops have been stationed in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953, to defend South Korea against a possible attack by the 1.1 million-member North Korean army. The two countries are still technically at war, since an armistice was agreed on but a peace treaty was never signed.
The impending removal of more than 12,000 U.S. troops marks the biggest change in the American military presence in South Korea since 1971 and the first major retraction of troops since 1992, when the U.S. and South Korea agreed on the removal of 7,000 U.S. soldiers.
The decision is part of American plans for a realignment of U.S. forces across the globe, to move troops closer to places it considers more strategically important. South Korea, however, is concerned about the timing of the removal; tension over North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons has reached a peak, and South Korea is worried the withdrawal of U.S. troops will make the country appear more vulnerable to its enemy.
Though the United States is shrinking its South Korean forces, the Pentagon has announced that it plans to invest $11 billion between now and 2009 to upgrade its ability to quickly deploy troops there in the event that a conflict occurs.
It is not yet clear whether the soldiers moving from South Korea to Iraq will be replacements or whether the U.S. presence there is getting larger. American officials have yet to give a straight answer, but if the Pentagon wanted to increase deployment in Iraq, shifting troops from other counties would probably be the best solution politically. Given that the impending return of Iraqi sovereignty (see "President Chosen For Transitional Iraqi Government") should signal the slow removal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the deployment of new troops from the U.S. to Iraq would look bad, especially since President Bush specifically stated that no new troops would be sent there.
Sook said the news caught South Koreans by surprise, and officials there are reportedly asking the United States to delay the removal of troops until 2007.
"The South Korean government will review the notification from the U.S. with the Ministry of National Defense and other related organizations in accordance with cooperative autonomous defense and convey our opinions to the U.S.," Sook said.
The U.S. notified South Korea last year of plans to remove some forces stationed there and to utilize advances in military technology to maintain its protection of the country. South Korean officials stressed that the decision of when to remove the troops is still in the discussion phase and that no definite timeline has been set.