Timing troop deploymentsA senior U.S. military commander disclosed that Washington was discussing with Seoul the redeployment of an undetermined number of American soldiers in Korea to Afghanistan. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answering questions about a possible additional troop redeployment during a recent visit to U.S. troops here, said that it is “one of the issues in discussion with the Koreans.” The reassignment of U.S. troops, whose numbers here hover around 28,500, would mark the second pullout after U.S. troops were sent to Iraq, and there are fears that such a move could undermine Korea’s security readiness. Moreover, in a recent security meeting, Seoul agreed to assume operational control of Korean forces in wartime from the U.S. by April 2012.
The U.S. has been hinting at a gradual disengagement of land forces in Korea as part of its Global Defense Posture Review, something it has pursued since 2000, so as to apply its overseas combat forces more quickly to high-conflict areas. The two countries first commented on the idea of the “strategic flexibility” of the U.S. forces in Korea after an annual security meeting in 2003. The concept basically indicates that the U.S. will realign and reposition its military operations in Korea toward a broader global posture. In 2006, Seoul finally announced its compliance with Washington’s changed military strategy in return for the U.S. assurance that Korean troops would not be pulled into any regional conflict in the Northeast Asian region that the Korean people did not want to be involved in. It literally gave its approval to the idea that the U.S. can move American troops stationed here anywhere else at any time.
We are not attempting to raise a stink about this. But both countries need to reaffirm that the U.S. deterrent against North Korea will not be undermined by U.S. troop deployments. We are at a critical moment, with tension on the peninsula heightened by North Korea’s active nuclear development. We must move more quickly to beef up the capabilities of the Korean forces. The U.S. must avoid scheduling the transfer of wartime operational control at the same time as troop redeployments to the Middle East. We believe this is another reason to defer the transfer year, because the “strategic flexibility” of the U.S. military presence in Korea means that the size of the U.S. combat force here will decrease.