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CAMBRIDGE, England — In the recent presidential election in South Korea, candidate Roh Moo Hyun played to the populist tune when he called for U.S. troops to leave the country. This was a response to the highly emotional popular reaction to the deaths of two South Korean girls who were accidentally run over by a U.S. military vehicle. The U.S. military court that tried the soldiers involved acquitted them.

After Roh won the election, various American leaders reacted to the anti-U.S. demonstrations in Seoul by saying that the United States might decide to withdraw its 37,000 troops from South Korea. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been reported as saying the U.S. “can withdraw its forces if the South Korean people so desire.”

Since his victory, however, Roh has backtracked. On several occasions, he has stressed the need to continue the alliance with the U.S. He is also suggesting that he is more comfortable with the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea remaining where they are.

Is he correct? Do the South Koreans really need and benefit from the presence of the U.S. troops? Maybe not.

The 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea have little or no military value in the balance of power between North and South Korea. North Korea has at least 1.1 million frontline troops in service backed up by 1.8 million reservists. Most are stationed along the border with South Korea. In addition, more than 10,000 missiles and artillery pieces are in position along the border.

Far from being an effective deterrent to a possible North Korean invasion, the U.S. troops are hostages to fortune. The U.S. bases in Seoul, less than 50 km from the border, would be destroyed within minutes of hostilities breaking out.

American troops failed to win a ground war in Korea once before. They are unlikely to win in the future. Even though the Chinese can be counted on not to go to war in support of their ally in Pyongyang this time around and the Russians are unlikely to provide any substantive support, the 37,000 U.S. troops would still be irrelevant. They are also unnecessary and provocative.

Under the U.S.-South Korean alliance, war on either side counts as war on the other. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is well aware of this. He is also aware that if he moves against South Korea with troops or rockets, the reaction from the U.S. will come from the air and sea. Pyongyang would again be destroyed by the Americans, but with bombs and rockets, not ground forces.

The war would be fought on the U.S. side with warships, planes and submarines, not with ground troops. Many of these ships, planes and troops are based in Japan, and other bases in the north Pacific, not in South Korea. Almost certainly it would be South Korean troops who moved into North Korea to carry out a ground war, not Americans.

Kim is not deterred by the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea. On the contrary, he regards them as an important part of his bargaining strategy. He is counting on his capacity to annihilate them, and possibly U.S. bases in Japan, to deter the U.S. from a first-strike attack and to bring it to the negotiating table.

If U.S. troops in South Korea only serve to give Kim a bargaining chip, why are they there? They are a leftover from the Cold War phase of American neo-imperialism.

After World War II, the U.S. decided that Korea (and Taiwan) were outside its area of interest and pulled out. It was only when the Soviets and Chinese supported North Korean moves that the U.S. decided that this had been a mistake — in terms of American security, not South Korean security.

The Americans left South Korea in 1948 in the hands of a fascist-style dictator and his cronies, many of whom had collaborated with the Japanese in World War II. They lost interest in the Peninsula. They did not go back in 1950 to support the South Korean regime but to stop the spread of communism in East Asia.

There are no communist states to the north of Korea now, only ex-communist states on the road to full-blown capitalism. North Korea is not planning to convert the world to its homegrown and incomprehensible style of Stalinism. It couldn’t even if it wanted to. The regime could not survive very long in the wake of an attack on South Korea and U.S. bases. But not because there are 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea.

The presence of U.S. troops in South Korea is a relic of the past. They serve no military purpose. That they offend the sensitivities of their hosts is blatantly obvious in the South Korean media. It’s time for U.S. troops to go home.

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