The U.S. military will withdraw most if its forces from the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea this year, an official announced today.
The withdrawal means the United States will no longer have combat troops anywhere on the DMZ except at Panmunjom, where a U.S.-Korean battalion, commanded by a U.S. army lieutenant colonel, remains on guard in what is known as the Joint Security Area.
Therefore South Korea, which has a 600,000-member military, will face North Korea's armed forces, the world's fifth largest with 1.1 million soldiers, most of whom are concentrated near the DMZ.
The United States will turn over Observation Post Ouellette, which provides a view into North Korea, as part of a force reshuffle, the official said. U.S. forces will no longer guard the border, except except for the troops at the JSA in Panmunjom.
South Korean forces will take over Ouelette, just as they have replaced U.S. forces everywhere else along the DMZ since the Korean War ended in 1953. South Korea officials, however, want the U.S. to keep its troops in the Joint Security Area as symbols of America's commitment to defend the South.
The 2 1/2-mile wide, 151-mile long DMZ, is considered one of the last remaining symbols of the Cold War. However it is still an active war zone with mines, barbed wire and tank traps.
U.S. troops guarding the inter-Korean border have served as a strategic "tripwire" because they are presumed to come under fire during a North Korean attack, thereby prompting U.S. intervention in South Korea's defense.
The United States has about 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea, but has long kept fewer than 200 soldiers along the DMZ, at Observation Post Ouellette and Panmunjom, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Deborah Bertrand, a spokeswoman for U.S. Forces Korea.
Details on the timing of Ouellette's turnover and the eventual troop level at Panmunjom are still being decided in consultation with South Korea, Bertrand said, adding: "It will be this year."
U.S. Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, joint commander of the U.S. Forces Korea and the United Nations. Command overseeing the cease fire that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, has briefed Congress on U.S. plans to give South Korea more autonomy in its defense.
He said the "Republic of Korea will replace all United States personnel directly involved in security patrols, manning observation posts, and base operations support" along the DMZ, except for Panmunjom, where the United States will maintain command over a battalion of joint U.S.-South Korean forces.
The United States is currently reviewing its military posture in South Korea as part of a global realignment overseen by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who wants greater flexibility and more emphasis on technology and Special Forces.
Earlier this year, the United States agreed to transfer about 7,000 U.S. forces and their families from its sprawling Yongsan Base in downtown Seoul.
It has also decided to close half of its bases in South Korea Ñ 28 combat and support facilities and three training ranges Ñ and return more than half the land occupied by U.S. forces to South Korea by 2011.
South Koreans have long complained that the U.S. military occupies prime real estate and that its bases near densely populated cities contribute to crime. But the majority support the presence as a deterrent against the North.