Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld expressed support yesterday for shifting U.S. forces in Korea away from the fortified border between North and South and from the capital city, Seoul, adding that there might even be an overall reduction in the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula.
Disclosing that U.S. military officials have been working privately for months on a potential repositioning of U.S. troops in South Korea, Rumsfeld said bilateral discussions on the subject would soon begin at the invitation of South Korea's President-elect Roh Moo-Hyun.
His remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee came against the backdrop of recent strains between Washington and Seoul over how to deal with North Korea's intensified pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The issue of alleged crimes committed by U.S. troops in the South also has become a subject of tension.
But Rumsfeld sought to couch the Korean review in the broader context of a general reassessment by the Pentagon and regional commanders of U.S. troop concentrations overseas, including the U.S. military presence in Germany.
Rumsfeld appeared to favor change in Germany, as well. He noted with frustration the difficulty that U.S. troops are experiencing trying to travel from Germany to Italy -- and on to the Persian Gulf region for a possible war with Iraq -- saying that Austria has blocked movement of the forces by rail through its territory.
"Which means we may have to go up to Rotterdam or possibly by train through two or three or four countries, instead of directly," Rumsfeld said. "Therefore, it's clear it's better for us probably not to have such a heavy concentration" of troops in Germany.
In the case of Korea, Rumsfeld said he "would like to see a number of our forces move away from the Seoul area and from near the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone], and be more oriented towards an air hub and a sea hub" in the area. He offered no specifics about where such hubs would be located, whether in South Korea or elsewhere.
But he said the United States would still have to ensure it retained an ability to send reinforcements to South Korea "so there's still a strong deterrent" to aggression by the North. "Possibly with our improved capabilities of moving people," he added, U.S. forces in the region could be reduced.
Mindful of the political ramifications associated with altering U.S. troop levels in Korea and Germany, after more than a half-century of large American military concentrations in both countries, Rumsfeld stressed that any changes "would be undertaken in close consultation with our allies over a reasonable period of time." He also said "it would be a mistake to suggest that if we do end up reducing some of those forces or moving them to other countries, that it had anything to do with our relationships with those countries, because it simply doesn't."