U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says the reduction and redeployment of U.S. forces in South Korea is long overdue, and will not hurt the effort to deter any aggressive action by North Korea. Mr. Rumsfeld spoke in response to a question from a U.S. army sergeant at a "town hall" meeting at the Pentagon Friday.
The sergeant asked Secretary Rumsfeld how he feels about the readiness of U.S. forces in Korea to respond to any threat from the north, with one unit already deployed to Iraq and more troops scheduled to leave. Secretary Rumsfeld said he feels "very good" about it.
"There isn't any reason in the world why they can't provide the security capabilities, along with some assistance from the U.N. forces, the United States,” said Mr. Rumsfeld. “And so what we've done is work with the South Koreans, the Republic of Korea, so that they assume a greater and greater share of the responsibility for providing both the deterrent and the defensive capability on the Korean peninsula."
Secretary Rumsfeld said the United States is finally completing the same process in South Korea that it is in the early stages of in Afghanistan and Iraq. He said the United States and its allies provided South Korea with the opportunity to build a free and prosperous society, which it has now done. The secretary said the United States should not be creating dependency by providing for other countries' defenses in the long term. He said more than 50 years after the end of the Korean War, it is well past time for the South Koreans to take on the major responsibility for their own defense.
"It makes all the sense in the world to be doing what we're doing. The only thing that didn't make sense is that it took so long to get there, in my opinion," he added.
The withdrawal of 12,500 of the 35,000 U.S. troops that were in Korea as of last year, was agreed to in a joint communiqué issued by Secretary Rumsfeld and his South Korean counterpart last October. The withdrawal is to be completed by the end of 2008. The remaining U.S. forces are to be moved to two bases, outside of Seoul and the Demilitarized Zone, to be ready to help if necessary. About 5,000 of the troops have already left.
A Pentagon spokesman said later Friday that by improving the capability of the U.S. forces remaining in Korea, and instituting more integration of U.S. and South Korean units, the deterrent against any North Korean attack will increase, even though there will be fewer U.S. troops and they will be farther from the front lines. The spokesman says the plan is part of a broader U.S. strategy that will also be implemented in other places with longstanding U.S. troop deployments, including Europe.