SEOUL ø First the Pentagon told the ministry of national defense it plans to transfer a brigade of 3,600 troops from South Korea to Iraq this summer. Now, the Pentagon is telling South Korean officials it wants to scale back the number of U.S. troops in South Korea from 37,000 to 25,000.
The news took the government here by surprise. A Blue House official, talking anonymously to South Korean reporters, barely masked the government's concern: "The realignment should not undermine our national security."
In and out of the government, the realization has now dawned that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been deadly serious when he spread the word during his visit here last November that the U.S. had a new concept of flexible defense.
The topic is likely to be the main agenda item next week, when U.S. and South Korean officials gather here for the ninth annual talks on the Future of the Alliance Policy Initiative. Ordinarily, the talks would reaffirm the position of both sides of a bright future for the U.S.-Korean alliance and firm resolutions for full cooperation.
However, it is on the sidelines of these talks, Korean officials say, that U.S. and South Korean negotiators will haggle over the U.S. proposal for the biggest reduction of forces here since the 1970s, when the U.S. withdrew a division from the country.
Kim Sung-Han, research professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, reflected the misgivings of the government when he remarked that the need for reinforcements in Iraq meant, "Talks on a reduction of troops have come earlier than expected."
Kim said the United States had not been expected to wind up talks on scaling back its forces in Korea for at least two more years. "The U.S. timetable is now much faster than that," he said.
The presence of the 14,000 troops in the Second Infantry Division, on the invasion route between the Demilitarized Zone and Seoul 30 miles to the South, was not needed in the new view of U.S. strategic planners.
Rather, the whole second division could move south of Seoul to the region around Pyongtaek, near Osan Air Base, about 40 miles below the capital. Local residents may have influenced the Pentagon to decide instead to transfer the 3,600 troops of the second brigade of the Second Division this summer and then to ship the rest of the division sometime next year.
The radical restructuring may have been decreed by what's called the Global Defense Posturing Review or GDR, the Pentagon's blueprint for the future of the U.S. armed forces.