Strategic games

Published : Jun 18, 2004 00:00 IST

The U.S. decision to pull out some of its troops from South Korea has more to it than meets the eye, given its declared strategic interests in the East Asian region.

in Singapore

THE United States' recent decision to shift nearly 4,000 of its troops from South Korea to occupied Iraq signals the new priorities in Washington's "globalised" strategic calculations. However, the decision has prompted South Korea, a long-time military ally of the U.S., to go into a political overdrive to try and convince itself and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) that there will be no change in the strategic balance in East Asia.

The South Korean government, now under the executive stewardship of judicially-reinstated President Roh Moo-hyun, lost no time to allay the "fears" of a worried people that the U.S.' action, announced on May 17, might compromise Seoul's security preparedness against a possible "attack" by the DPRK. While U.S. President George W. Bush has indicated that he obtained the "understanding" of his South Korean counterpart even as he was duly informed of the move, Seoul feels that there is more to Washington's intentions than meets the eye.

Three aspects of the U.S.' decision are in prime focus in this context. First, the U.S. troops to be shifted to Iraq will be withdrawn from the South Korean side of the tense and sensitive border with the DPRK. This is seen in Seoul as an arguable case of "exposing" South Korea, unwittingly or otherwise, to the emerging military "danger" from a fast-`nuclearising' DPRK.

Second, far from being reassured by the prospective thinning of the U.S. troops, Pyongyang suspects that the U.S. may actually be preparing the ground, gradually though, for a possible pre-emptive nuclear strike against the DPRK. The reasoning is that the U.S. troops in question, if not shifted now from the line of Pyongyang's conventional fire, might actually find themselves at risk in the event of a U.S. nuclear strike against the DPRK involving miniaturised weapons. Although Bush's decision does not apply to the 14,000 U.S. troops located along the inter-Korean demilitarised zone (DMZ), the DPRK believes that it could just be Bush's first preference.

Washington has, for several months now, indicated its desire to relocate most or all of these troops away from the DMZ but within South Korea. In all, there are about 37,000 U.S. military personnel in South Korea, about half of them near the DMZ. With about one-tenth of the overall U.S. military formation being shifted out of the DPRK's political sights at this point, the planned process of re-location within South Korea will receive an early boost.

The third aspect of Bush's decision is not so much the strategic reach that the U.S. commands as its changing calculus with regard to East Asia. It is significant that the move coincides with the U.S. plan to patrol the Straits of Malacca in the same region (Frontline, June 4). One inevitable question is whether Bush is really trying to make amends for the "expansionist" move concerning the Straits by appearing to lower his country's military profile in some other part of East Asia.

Another poser in this context is whether Bush has pressed the "panic" button in the face of the worsening crisis in Iraq, and requisitioned additional troops for Iraq from wherever he could mobilise. A related question is why Bush did not try to shift some U.S. military personnel from Japan too. This would suggest a strong reason that has as much to do with the U.S.' calculations in South Korea as with Washington's growing "emergency" needs in Iraq.

IT is against such a background that authoritative East Asian diplomatic sources told this correspondent that Bush's South Korea-Iraq move was essentially "a matter of tactics". They pointed out that Bush needed more combat-ready personnel in Iraq, in the face of the moral restraint being shown by several key countries in refusing to join the U.S. imperial project in West Asia. However, according to the sources, he is now beginning to do in South Korea what was already indicated: a readjustment of the U.S. military presence in East Asia as a whole. As of now, the likely departure of about 4,000 soldiers from out of 37,000 is not reckoned to alter the U.S.' "forward presence" in South Korea in a substantive fashion.

A strong feeling inside South Korea, however, is one of dismay that Washington has not indicated whether it would replace the departing combat-ready personnel with a comparable number. It should be noted, at the same time, that such a sentiment is not shared by the growing number of South Korean opponents of the U.S.' military presence in their country.

There is no conclusive evidence yet to indicate that Bush is actually down-scaling South Korea in his strategic sweep of East Asia. Nonetheless, should proof be needed, the recent U.S. bid to enhance its military surveillance and operational capabilities along the Straits of Malacca is symptomatic of his desire to improve the "quality" of the country's strategic reach along the Asiatic Rim of the Pacific Ocean. Top East Asian diplomats point out that the U.S. may have begun the process of deploying "floating bases" by seeking a right to patrol the Straits of Malacca, either unilaterally or as part of a "regional initiative".

Taken together, the partial U.S. pull-out from South Korea and a bid for an intrusive maritime surveillance of the Malacca region indicate an increasingly proactive, not passive, role across East Asia. The old Truman Doctrine, enunciated in the wake of the Second World War and in the absence of today's political mosaic of East Asia, did not automatically extend to the Asiatic side of the Pacific. Dean Acheson, the then U.S. Secretary of State, wanted to "wait for the dust to settle" before refashioning Washington's East Asia policy in the wake of a War victory, which was made possible, in some measure, by the first-ever use of atomic bombs. Today, in contrast, the U.S. is already too deeply entrenched in East Asia to need any new doctrinal push. The present context, too, has something to do with nuclear weapons: the DPRK's efforts to make or acquire them in order to "deter" a possible pre-emptive "nuclear strike" by the U.S.

In an overall military-strategic framework, U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other U.S. military officials have, over recent months, outlined their Korea plans in terms that would project the latest partial pull-out as no such thing at all but a corrective measure aimed at a better management of the U.S.-South Korean alliance to meet the perceived unconventional security challenges in the 21st century.

The South Korean authorities maintain that two new endeavours would ensure that the alliance remains in good repair. According to South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon, no "security vacuum" would be caused by the new U.S. plan. The two factors that would prevent a "security vacuum" are identified as new South Korean efforts at "military self-help" and, more importantly, the perceived willingness of the U.S. to enhance the quality of its military cooperation with Seoul through the deployment of more precision-guided weapons systems, including advanced missiles.

There is a strong reason why the South Korean authorities insist on "deterrence" against the DPRK, notwithstanding its participation in the ongoing talks on the nuclear issue and the growing popular sentiments about reunification of the two Koreas. This is best reflected in the comment by Adrian Buzo, a Western expert on the complex question: "The Korean division will remain the defining characteristic of modern Korea for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the pull towards some sort of unification formula persists."

However, for the U.S. authorities the Korean division rather than the "pull towards some sort of unification" matters as of now. Incidentally, the U.S. decision was announced just a few days after the judicial reversal of Roh's parliamentary impeachment. Roh is widely seen to be not as U.S.-friendly as Washington would like him to be.

Tracing the new U.S. military profile in South Korea, General Leon Laporte, Commander of the United Nations Command and the Republic of Korea-United States Combined Forces Command and the U.S. Forces Korea, has spoken of the "momentous changes" now under way. Testifying before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee in Washington on March 31 he said the plan was to promote "an enduring U.S. military presence in Korea and a stronger alliance".

"Force modernisation and interoperability" as regards the U.S., the United Nations and South Korean forces, besides the transfer of certain tasks from the U.S. forces to those of South Korea, have been spelt out. A "sustainable stationing environment" for the U.S. forces in South Korea and the re-location of the forces within that country over the next several years are also high on the agenda.

Addressing the "anxiety" of some Koreans that "this realignment may send the wrong message to North Korea", Laporte affirmed, in inscrutable strategic vocabulary, that the proposed change in the deployment of the U.S. forces "leverages our [American] improved capabilities to improve readiness and deterrence" against the DPRK "while supporting a long-term United States military presence in the Republic of Korea". Is there a message behind such a belaboured language of deterrence?

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