HONOLULU — In a little noticed speech, President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea has once again disparaged his nation’s alliance with the United States and cast doubt on whether this partnership should continue. Roh told graduating cadets at the Korean Air Force Academy that South Korea was fully capable of defending itself against North Korea, thus undermining the reason for posting American combat forces in his country.
At the same time, the president asserted that the U.S. would not be allowed to deploy U.S. forces out of Korea without his government’s approval, thus putting a crimp into Pentagon plans to forge American troops in Korea into a flexible force that could be swiftly deployed to contingencies outside Korea.
The U.S. government has evidently chosen to ignore Roh’s remarks as scant reaction has come from Washington. E-mailed queries to the U.S. military headquarters in Seoul asking for reaction have gone unanswered.
The commander of U.S. forces in Korea, however, has reinforced, perhaps inadvertently, Roh’s views on the capability of South Korea’s forces against North Korea. Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, coincidentally speaking in Washington the same day that Roh spoke in Seoul (March 8), told a Senate committee that North Korea’s military forces were poorly prepared for armed conflict.
In particular, he said North Korea’s air force was antiquated and struggling with maintenance. Where U.S. and South Korean pilots averaged 15 hours a month of flight training, North Korean may get only 12 to 15 hours a year. On the ground, a unit on maneuvers could operate only six of its 12 vehicles because of shortage in supplies and fuel.
The U.S. has already begun to reduce its troops in Korea and to turn over more duties to South Korea’s forces. Last year the U.S. had 37,500 troops in South Korea. That is down to 32,500 today. Up to 3,000 are to be withdrawn yearly to bring the level down to 20,000 in 2008.
In his address at the Air Force Academy, Roh said that 100 years ago, Japan, China and Russia fought on Korean soil while Koreans “just watched helplessly.” Now “we have sufficient power to defend ourselves. We have nurtured mighty national armed forces that absolutely no one can challenge.”
Even allowing for the exaggeration of a politician, that was a resounding statement. Not content with that, the president went on: “The armed forces have been exerting efforts to bolster our self-reliant defense capabilities. We must press ahead vigorously with the reforms of our defense already begun.”
Pointing to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s plans for “strategic flexibility” that would assign U.S. forces in Korea the mission of responding to crises elsewhere, Roh said: “We will not be embroiled in any conflict in Northeast Asia against our will. This is an absolutely firm principle we cannot yield under any circumstance.”
That was generally seen as an attempt to prevent U.S. forces from deploying to the Taiwan Strait in the event of hostilities between China and Taiwan.
Roh, who campaigned on an anti-American platform and called for more self-reliance in defense, has been drawing closer to Beijing, which also has raised the question of how long he intends to maintain South Korea’s alliance with the U.S.
Under Rumsfeld’s orders, U.S. forces will be moved from their present camps between Seoul and the 240-km-long demilitarized zone dividing the peninsula. They will be posted in consolidated camps 120 km south of Seoul with quick access to airfields and ports through which they would ship out to places of conflict elsewhere.
Roh further appealed to a long-standing South Korean irritation, which is U.S. command of South Korean forces in combat. “Within 10 years,” he said, “we should be able to develop our military into one with full command of operations.” That would include, he said, “the capability for planning independent operations.”
Not everyone in Seoul agreed with the president. The Joong Ang Ilbo, a leading newspaper, editorialized: “We are curious why Mr. Roh mentioned the issue publicly at this particular moment.”
The newspaper said Seoul and Washington had not agreed to revise the security treaty. The editorial concluded: “We thus ask Mr. Roh to study the issue in earnest and enhance mutual trust between the two countries rather than just mentioning it openly.” That was a polite way of saying maybe Roh should have kept quiet.
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