Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The U.S. commitment to peace on the Korean peninsula remains unchanged, despite the planned reduction in the number of American troops deployed there, Washington's envoy to South Korea has stressed.
Speaking a day after the Pentagon and Seoul's defense ministry announced a final schedule for the most significant restructuring ever of U.S. forces in Korea (USFK), Ambassador Christopher Hill acknowledged that the relationship between the two countries was changing.
"It's very important to make sure that there is no change in anyone's perception about our commitment to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula," he said during a forum at the Korea Press Center in Seoul.
Hill said there was nothing to be suspicious of regarding the alterations in bilateral ties.
"The relationship rests on a somewhat new base and is moving into a time when it will tread on new ground," he said.
"Korea is going through some very fundamental changes, both domestic and foreign. I think internal changes in Korea are influencing the country's foreign relations."
Among those changes, Hill said, was a generational change involving a shift in "certain collective memory."
A leftward drift in South Korean politics - seen first in the election of President Roh Moo-hyun and then in this year's parliamentary takeover by the liberal Uri Party - has been attributed largely to a generation of voters born after the 1950-53 Korea War.
The administration has been talking about pursuing a more "independent" foreign policy, although Roh has stressed the alliance with Washington remains critical, and made good on promises to send thousands of Korean troops to Iraq despite strong domestic opposition.
At the same time, his government has been pressing for an improvement in relations with the Stalinist North, a move conservatives worry offers too many unreciprocated concessions to Kim Jong-il's regime.
Hill said it was a mistake to think South Korea's relations with the U.S. cool if it improved its ties with its neighbors - presumably a reference primarily to North Korea. "It's not a zero-sum game."
But he also voiced the hope that Seoul would strengthen its strategic relationship with the U.S. over time, noting that as a medium-sized country South Korea needed an alliance to safeguard its interests.
Leftist civic organizations generally regard the U.S. as more of a problem than North Korea, and have long been campaigning for the withdrawal of the USFK, which has been deployed for decades to help safeguard South Korea from the 1.1 million-strong North Korean army.
Yet proposals to cut the 37,000 U.S. troops by 12,500 - as part of a global reassessment of U.S. force deployment - provoked alarm in official Korean circles, and prompted calls for the pullback process not to take place too quickly.
The Pentagon agreed, and the USFK's drawdown schedule, announced this week, comprises three phased withdrawals by 2008, three years later than originally scheduled.
It said the changes to the initial plan were in response to "the Korean public's perceptions regarding a potential security gap."
According to the new and final plan, some 5,000 troops will have left by the end of 2004 - including 3,600 Infantry soldiers redeployed to Iraq earlier this year.
Stage two would involve the withdrawal of 5,000 combat and support unit troops in 2005 and 2006, and stage three would comprise a final 2,500 service personnel, mostly from support units, withdrawn by September 2008.
The Defense Department said the USFK would keep sophisticated weapons systems and assets in place, including a multiple launch rocket system battalion based near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) which was to have been removed. The system is considered vital for deterring or resisting a North Korean artillery attack.
The U.S. would also continue to implement an $11 billion program between 2005 and 2008 to enhance its strategic capabilities in the region.
"Throughout these consultations, the United States has made clear that it remains committed to the defense of the Republic of Korea, to the security and stability of the region and to a strengthened Republic of Korea-US alliance."
Apart from the withdrawal of a full one-third of USFK troops, South Korea's security landscape will also change dramatically with the withdrawal of USFK headquarters and 8,000 troops out of central Seoul to a new base 50 miles to the south, and the relocation of other American bases from the DMZ to south of the capital. Those moves were agreed upon in earlier negotiations.
The reduction of USFK numbers to some 25,000 forms part of the U.S. program of adjusting its global force posture to most efficiently face post-Cold War threats like terrorism.
Although the stretching out of the withdrawals has been widely welcomed in Korea, the government has come in for criticism for its handling of the issue.
"The attitudes of core officials of the Roh administration, who had acted as if they did not care about the U.S. troops' withdrawal, must be criticized," said JoongAng Ilbo daily in an editorial. "It is fortunate that we were able to persuade the United States [to delay the pullout] by realizing the reality belatedly."
A different view came from the Korea Times, which congratulated the government and attributed the U.S. willingness to alter the plan to Roh's decision to send 3,600 troops to Iraq - the largest contribution to the U.S.-led coalition after Britain.
The troop dispatch came despite the seizure and subsequent decapitation of a South Korean hostage by terrorists in Iraq, who demanded that Seoul reverse the decision.
"The new [USFK] plan demonstrates not only Washington's trust in Seoul but also the necessity of maintaining the strong military alliance between the two nations as long as tension remains on the peninsula," the Korea Times said.