Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld assured longtime ally South Korea on Monday that a planned pullback of U.S. troops from the border area with communist North Korea will strengthen the ability of the American military to respond to an invasion from the north.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. envoy held "intensive" discussions with Japanese officials as the two nations prepared Monday for a new diplomatic push to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis amid concern possible security guarantees for the communist nation may leave Japan more vulnerable.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly arrived in Tokyo on Sunday for a three-day visit to compare negotiating positions with Japan ahead of a second round of multilateral talks on the year-old crisis that officials have said could be held next month.
President Bush has suggested he is open to the idea of exchanging security guarantees with North Korea if it verifiably and irreversibly dismantles its nuclear weapons program.
The prospect of the United States making new commitments has raised some concern in Japan that the U.S.-Japan security alliance could be compromised, leaving this country more vulnerable to threats from the communist nation.
Washington has taken pains to reassure Tokyo it won't allow its hands to be tied.
Similarly, some in South Korea have worried that ending the U.S. forces' role as a "tripwire" along the Demilitarized Zone might lessen the American commitment to defending against a North Korea attack. The Pentagon has portrayed the move as better positioning American troops to counterattack.
"We understand that weakness can be provocative," Rumsfeld told a joint news conference with his South Korean counterpart, Cho Young-kil, after a series of meetings at the Ministry of Defense.
The 50-year-old U.S.-South Korean defense alliance has been successful, he said, because "we have had the ability to deter and defend and, if necessary, prevail. And that has been well understood. I can assure you it will be well understood in the years ahead and, needless to say, neither of our governments would do anything that would in any way weaken the deterrent and the capability to defend."
The question of an eventual U.S. withdrawal of troops from South Korea was not discussed, American officials said, although it is apparent that troop reductions are a likely consequence of the planned consolidation of U.S. bases and the introduction of more efficiencies in the U.S. military.
Since becoming Pentagon chief, Rumsfeld has pursued a modernization of the military that would rely on smaller, more mobile forward forces rather than the large bases in Germany, Japan and Korea that anchored U.S. strategy through the Cold War.
Gen. Leon LaPorte, commander of all 37,000 U.S. forces in South Korea, said in an interview later that a shrinkage of the U.S. military on the Korean Peninsula "may be one of the payoffs" from a multi-year plan for consolidating forces and introducing new military capabilities.
Regarding the future role of U.S. forces in his country, President Roh Moo-hyun said he understood that the transformation of the American military, capitalizing on new technologies and a greater integration of land, sea and air forces, means that "numbers become less important," the U.S. official said.
The Korean War, which took the lives of more than 30,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty, so the United States has kept forces here ever since.
Most of the U.S. ground forces, led by the Army's 2nd Infantry Division, are positioned at numerous encampments just south of the Demilitarized Zone, where they would either be overrun by invading North Korean forces or compelled to withdraw south of Seoul, the capital, before counterattacking.
Rumsfeld said that at Monday's defense talks the two sides reaffirmed an earlier agreement to shift U.S. ground troops further away from the DMZ, to two hubs south of Seoul, in two phases. In the first phase, U.S. soldiers stationed north of Seoul will be consolidated on a smaller number of bases. At some point after 2006 they will be moved south of Seoul — mainly to the Camp Humphreys area.
Still to be resolved is whether a residual U.S. force of perhaps 700 to 1,000 troops would remain at Yongsan Garrison, headquarters of the 8th U.S. Army, in downtown Seoul.