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Debate Continues Over US Military Presence in S. Korea - 2003-01-16

As the dispute between Washington and North Korea over that country's nuclear weapons program has intensified in recent weeks, calls have come from both sides of the Pacific Ocean for a change in the American military presence in South Korea.

The United States has maintained a large military presence in South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953 without a formal peace treaty. The number of U.S. soldiers has varied over the years, and currently totals 37,000. Their presence serves as a deterrent to a possible North Korean invasion across the demilitarized zone that separates it from the South.

In recent weeks, thousands of young demonstrators in Seoul have staged anti-American protests, demanding the withdrawal of the U.S. troops. New South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who takes office next month, won election at least partly because his campaign pledges were seen as at odds with U.S. policy.

American journalist and Korea specialist Don Oberdorfer interviewed Mr. Roh a few months before the election, and before the current crisis over North Korea's nuclear program.

"Roh Moo-hyun said to me 'South Korea has changed a lot, and the U.S.-Korean relationship should change.' Now, he did not have a particular prescription for that, and I do not think there is a real prescription for it," he said. "But dealing with the question of troops, and how many there are going to be, and where they are going to be, and what they are going to be doing is certainly one of the things that I think is necessarily going to be on the agenda."

One of Mr. Roh's campaign pledges, which appealed to young voters, was to continue the sunshine policy of outgoing President Kim Dae-jung to seek reconciliation with North Korea. Mr. Oberdorfer says the younger generation in the South has not experienced any real sense of threat from the North.

"They do not remember the Korean war or even the poverty-stricken and difficult days that followed it," he said. "If you do not have much of a sense of a threat about North Korea, you just want to deal with them, as one student said, 'like a distant cousin who you see now and then at a family reunion,' it is really hard to make the case why 37,000 American troops should be in your country - with the inevitable accidents that unfortunately happen, such as the killing of two school girls by an American armored vehicle, all kinds of inconveniences, environmental problems and land problems, and all the other things."

But a former U.S. intelligence officer for East Asia, Helen-Louise Hunter, says the revelation that North Korea is trying to build a nuclear weapons arsenal may dampen some calls for American troop withdrawals.

"It is true that the young people, who do not have any remembrance of the Korean War and who think of the North Koreans as their brothers are much more sympathetic to Kim Dae-jung's sunshine policy," she said. "I have read that even this recent crisis really has not significantly changed their thinking on that. But I think it is changed the thinking of the government. ... So, I do not think you are going to find voices in the South Korean government now, which is really what matters, wanting the U.S. troops to leave."

Ms. Hunter, author of a book about North Korea, says she does not expect the American forces to be asked to leave any time soon. But if they were to withdraw, she says, North Korea would still not likely attack the South, because it fears U.S. retaliatory bombing.

International relations professor at Seoul National University, Jae Ho Chung, says he does not believe most South Koreans want U.S. troops to leave.

"I think we have to make a clear distinction between those people who threw molotov cocktails at the gate of the American embassy, and those people who hold hands of their children and hold up the candle to mourn the death of two school girls killed by U.S. army vehicles," he said. "They are two different things. ... It is not an anti-American demonstration."

Instead, Professor Chung says, it was a demonstration to demand changes in the Status of Forces Agreement between Seoul and Washington.

There have also been calls among some members of the U.S. Congress and policy advisers in the United States for a re-evaluation of the status of U.S. troops in Korea.

In a commentary in The New York Times, former U.S. national security adviser from the Reagan administration, Richard Allen, says the United States should begin to draw down its military presence and be totally withdrawn from South Korea by 2007. Mr. Allen says Washington should tell Seoul it will honor its commitment to defend the South against an attack by the North, but "we will not stay where we are not wanted." He says South Korea has more than 600,000 well-armed troops and can begin to assume responsibility for its own frontline defense.

Larry Niksch, a specialist on East Asia with the Congressional Research Service, says there has been no re-evaluation of the U.S. presence in South Korea for more than 20 years.

"And I think, given these new circumstances and conditions that we find ourselves in, I think you can argue for a reassessment, a re-evaluation of the American military presence - taking a look at the justification for it, taking a look at the structure, the present structure and whether that present structure really meets the needs of today, and examining possible options for changing the structure," he said.

Mr. Niksch says such a review may lead to a reduction in the number of U.S. troops, or perhaps just a change in their composition. He says if the current situation continues unchanged, he worries that anti-American sentiment in South Korea will grow and could lead to a situation like that in the Philippines in 1993 when the United States was forced to completely withdraw from its bases there.