[VIEWPOIINT]Will the North be deterred?The United States and South Korea agreed to withdraw all American forces at the Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul from the metropolitan area at a defense policy meeting in Honolulu this month. Under the agreement, the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command and the UN Command together with the U.S. 8th Army and its 7,000 troops will be relocated to Osan and Pyeongtaek, about 45 miles south of Seoul, by 2007.
The agreement aroused strong opposition from the conservatives here. They do not object to the relocation of the 8th Army and 7,000 troops in Yongsan. What they worry about is the withdrawal of the two commands from Seoul. They think that the military deterrence against North Korean provocations will be lost if all American forces move south of the Han River.
Since 133 opposition lawmakers pledged to block the passage of the relocation agreement in the National Assembly, a confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties over the bill is foreseen. Already, through news media outlets and Internet bulletin boards, hot debates are being exchanged between liberals, who support a self-reliant national defense and the complete withdrawal of American forces from Yongsan, and conservatives, who argue that both commands must remain in Yongsan, functioning as a trip wire for automatic American intervention in case of North Korean provocations.
The demand to relocate the Yongsan base was raised by Seoul’s “democratization forces” in the 1980s. Anti-American rallies staged by left-leaning students and radical groups as part of the anti-government movement at that time often made American facilities in big cities, including the Yongsan base, targets of their protest. Considering the public sentiment against foreign military bases in central Seoul, the government opened talks on the relocation of Yongsan in 1989. A basic agreement was concluded in 1990, but discussions stalled over the cost. Talks were suspended in 1993 due to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
It was In December 2001 that talks were reopened. The 8th Army announced a plan to build 21 eight-story apartment buildings at the base for the U.S. embassy staff. The attitude in Seoul, especially after the inter-Korean summit meeting in June 2000, was one of slighting ideas like anti-Communism and military alliance as remnants of the Cold War era. The radicals would have denounced the apartment plan as a scheme to “create a permanent settlement for foreign troops” in Yongsan if it were endorsed. Seoul reopened the talks on Yongsan immediately and an agreement in principle was concluded to move the base.
The discussions and agreement were, from the beginning, for the relocation of the 8th Army and 7,000 troops under its command. The Combined Forces Command and the UN Command were not in the plan. At the fifth defense policy meeting in Seoul last October, both sides negotiated the size of the land to be maintained for the two commands. While Seoul insisted on 138 acres, the U.S. side asked for 227 acres.
It was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who decided to include both commands in the relocation plan. He expressed disappointment at the failure to conclude the talks in time for the Security Consultative Meeting when he came to Seoul in November. It was reported that, after taking a look at the base from a helicopter, Mr. Rumsfeld said, “If foreign troops were stationed in New York’s Central Park, would it be acceptable to Americans?”
Why did Mr. Rumsfeld decide on a complete withdrawal unexpectedly? Was he displeased because the Korean side was reluctant to give 227 acres as was demanded? Was it because he thought that Yongsan was like New York’s Central Park and should be returned to Seoul citizens intact?
South Koreans who oppose the relocation speculate that he had some other reasons. They think that the rapid spread of anti-American sentiment after the death of two schoolgirls in an accident involving a U.S. military vehicle in June 2002, the North Korean nuclear crisis and Seoul’s reluctance to take a hardline position against the North have led Washington to review its military deployment in South Korea. The conservatives suspect that the relocation of the two commands and the realignment of the 2d Infantry Division, now deployed north of Seoul, to south of the Han River by 2007 are precautionary measures for a possible military option against the North.
It is said that the relocation will not adversely affect the military power of the American forces in Korea, because the war technology has been greatly innovated and the remote command system has been upgraded by the advancement of information technology. It is also said that the capability of the American forces in Korea will be enhanced over the next three years under a program valued at $11 billion. But they are not the answer to the security concern that Seoul will be exposed to North Korean artillery attacks after the second phase realignment of the 2d Infantry Division in 2007.
It would be good to know why the Korean government did not object to the decision to withdraw the two commands from Seoul. Does it think that the second phase realignment of the 2d Infantry Division can be delayed beyond 2007? Otherwise, does it think that ending the stationing of foreign forces in Yongsan is more important than keeping the American military deterrence in Seoul? Or else, does it have an assurance from the North that it will not turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” as it threatened in 1994?
While conservatives and liberals here debate over the issue, it is feared that foreign businessmen will leave Korea looking for a place to do business not under military threat. To defuse the anxiety over security of both conservatives and foreign investors, it should be assured that the advanced air, satellite and missile technologies can provide a new type of military deterrence against the North, making the North Korean artillery positions along the Demilitarized Zone silent at once.
* The writer is the opinion page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo