Removal of U.S. troops from Seoul, 25 miles from the DMZ, meets with growing security jitters

January 20, 2004

The U.S. decision to pull its troops out of Seoul has sparked security concerns that the absence of American troops in the South Korean capital may weaken deterrence against North Korea.

The United States and South Korea agreed over the weekend to pull out all the American forces from Seoul by the end of 2007, putting an end to a half-century of U.S. military presence in the capital.

Under the deal, about 7,000 U.S. troops at the Yongsan Garrison central Seoul will move to a new base in Pyeongtaek, 40 miles south of the capital.

President Roh Moo-Hyun, who has sought less reliance on the U.S. protection, welcomed the deal, ruling out any negative impact on the military deterrence against the communist neighbor.

"There are people, including some government officials, who want to keep the Yongsan base as it is now, but this is an old idea," Roh told a group of pro-government lawmakers. "There is nothing to worry about at all," he said.

But security jitters are growing that the U.S. troops' southward relocation could weaken the country's defenses against North Korea, which continues to make nuclear threats.

The Yongsan base has served as a symbol of the 50-year-long military alliance with the United States that helped South Korea repel the Soviet-backed North Korean invasion during the 1950-53 Korean War.

"I believe North Korea has refrained from attacking the South because of the American troops here," said Ma Sung-Kwon, 39-year-old bank official in Seoul. "I hope American troops remain here to deter the North."

Seoul is just 25 miles from the heavily fortified border with North Korea. Some 12,000 artillery pieces are believed to be concealed in thousands of mountain tunnels near the border.

In the first hours of a war, North Korea could rain between 300,000 and 500,000 artillery shells onto Seoul and other points in South Korea, defense officials say. An artillery shell can reach Seoul in less than 2 minutes.

The conservative opposition parties have also opposed relocating all U.S. troops out of Seoul. A group of 133 conservative lawmakers issued a statement opposing the relocation plan and vowed to vote down any related bill in the 273-member National Assembly.

"President Roh Moo-Hyun and his government must take all the responsibility for the security vacuum in metropolitan areas," they said in a statement.

The southward redeployments would put U.S. troops out of the range of North Korean artillery attacks. The United States has already pushed for a plan to pull back about 15,000 soldiers of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division from the frontline to areas south of Seoul to avoid the North's artillery attacks.

North Korea, for its part, says the U.S. plan to pull back its troops is designed to make them less vulnerable when it launches a preemptive strike against the communist nation.

"The U.S. troops' southward relocation plan is aimed at occupying positions favorable for mounting a preemptive attack on the North," Rodong Sinmun, the North's ruling Workers' Party newspaper, said in a recent edition.