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SEOUL — It was inevitable that Korea, at some point, would rear its complicated head as a campaign issue. In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry said the withdrawal of 12,000 of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea would destabilize the Peninsula “at the very time we are negotiating with North Korea, a country that really has nuclear weapons.”

Every U.S. president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush has found the Korean problem to be tough. America’s precipitous withdrawal in 1949 to husband scarce military resources helped invite a North Korean attack the following year when the United States failed to make its intentions clear and seemingly wrote South Korea off. In the post-Korean War period, President Jimmy Carter stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition with his plan to withdraw U.S. forces, reversing course only when intelligence was found to have underestimated the strength of the North Korean Army by 25 percent.

History hangs no heavier than on the Korean Peninsula, where U.S. forces serve multiple roles: deterring the North, defending the South and providing a measure of regional stability in what has always been a tense region with multiple historic rivalries among China, Russia and Japan. But today, in addition to underscoring the half-century American security commitment to South Korea, U.S. forces help nurture a still fragile reconciliation between the two Koreas as well as underpin negotiating efforts with the North.

Common sense tells us that the timing of a withdrawal can be crucial not only militarily but politically if it changes the security equation by altering a delicate balance of forces. The partial withdrawal, combined with an ongoing redeployment, comes at a time of great uncertainty. It also calls into question some long-held assumptions. Kerry wasn’t grandstanding when he said any troop withdrawals from South Korea “needs to be done at the right time and in a sensible way,” and then asked, “Is this that time or that way?”

Let’s look closely at the facts. For starters, redeployment does away with the concept of a “trip wire.” If North Korean guns were to open up with U.S. troops on the front lines, that’s war with the U.S. If North Korean guns were to open up with U.S. troops 100 km to the south, that’s war as well. But for South Koreans, it would be a different kind of war if Americans fight behind them, not beside them. Understandably, that might take a little getting used to.

And despite Bush administration protestations to the contrary, the South Korean government went along with the redeployment reluctantly while the North vociferously denounced it, thirsting to see the “whites of their eyes” or risk losing the leverage of “hostages in harm’s way.”

But the most important question is how the North views the U.S. reduction in force — as weakness or strength, resolve or appeasement? In contrast to the redeployment, the North can’t be unhappy about the downsizing. Not only might it lead to further reductions in the future, it costs nothing in terms of reciprocal steps.

Another negative indicator would be an even harder line in future negotiations with the U.S. at the six party talks. For Pyongyang, the game has changed but the goal has not. It still wants to come out on top in the inter-Korean competition whether by piggybacking on the South’s economic success — demonstrating greater tenacity and determination — or by pursuing a reverse merger strategy in which the the weaker party swallows the stronger.

Further, the U.S. redeployment and partial withdrawal is premised on an $11 billion commitment to improving the force’s technological edge, allowing “more bang for the buck.” While such a step may permit the U.S to lower its troop strength without losing deterrence and defense capability, this was not a negotiation in which the South Korean government had a real choice in or for which demonstrated great enthusiasm.

On the one hand, the younger generation that helped elect Roh Moo Hyun president in 2002 is not particularly disposed to the hardline policies of the Bush administration toward North Korea. Indeed, it views Uncle Sam, not North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Il, as the bigger threat to peace and stability on the Peninsula. Meanwhile, the more conservative older generation is genuinely dismayed at this turn of events and somewhat confused about U.S. policy goals. These South Koreans want to be with the U.S. — as demonstrated by Seoul’s decision to send several thousand troops to Iraq. But they question whether Washington is with them as they seek to carve out a new relationship with the North.

But perhaps the biggest drawback to withdrawal is that, given its unilateral character, we get nothing concrete in return. Further, it follows a dangerous pattern first set in 1949 and then repeated in 1977 with Carter’s proposed conventional withdrawal scheme and again in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush withdrew tactical nuclear weapons worldwide (including South Korea) and lost the best opportunity to negotiate a quid pro quo with the North.

All these withdrawal plans looked good on paper; they all furthered American policy aims that seemed desirable at the time. However, they all made the Peninsula less secure. While we shouldn’t “call the whole thing” off quite yet, let’s slow it down and contemplate whether a partial withdrawal coming so soon after a major redeployment will change the broader political and security landscape for the better or worse.

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