SEOUL: South Korean president-elect Roh Moo-hyun has suggested that the 37,000 US troops still in the country half a century after the 1950-53 Korean War can be gone within a decade, making Seoul responsible for its own defence.
The heir to current President Kim Dae-jung tapped anti-American sentiment as he swept to victory in December on a manifesto that backed his mentor’s “sunshine policy” of engaging reclusive communist North Korea.
“Although we don’t know if it may take 10, 20 or 30 years, someone has to consider an independent defence,” Roh told the Seoul International Forum in remarks carried by the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.
He said South Korea, which faced North Korea’s one-million-strong army across the world’s most heavily-fortified border, was not unprepared.
“Senior military officials have to prepare a plan for a special emergency situation (on the Korean peninsula) when the US army moves away,” he was quoted as saying.
But Kim, speaking to a group of women leaders on Friday, said his country “must recognise with certainty the absolute necessity of US forces based in South Korea.”
“The stationing of US troops on the Korean peninsula decisively helps prevent an invasion of South Korea,” said the 78-year-old leader, who hands power to Roh on Feb 25.
The remarks come amid a growing chorus of calls from conservative US politicians and from think-tanks that it may be time to call the US troops stationed in South Korea home.
South Korean anti-US military sentiment has simmered for years but has swollen into a nationwide movement since a US armoured vehicle crushed two schoolgirls to death during army exercises in June. The soldiers were cleared in a court martial.
However, opinion in South Korea remains deeply divided, a cleavage underscored by a hard-hitting editorial in the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Korea’s biggest daily.
“”United States-Korea relations are at the worst point in their history. The misunderstanding and mistrust are growing at such a rate, that there are signs the whole relationship can come under threat,” it said.
The newspaper said Roh should back the continued presence of US troops.
“He has to state clearly and at every opportunity, that he wholeheartedly is in support of US forces being in the country and of the US-Korea alliance.
“It is clear which country has more to lose should the idea of withdrawing become part of public debate and a reality, so there’s no reason for him to hesitate on the matter,” the newspaper said.
A US diplomat in Seoul said aside from hardcore anti-US groups, most South Koreans “want some changes around the edges but basically want the forces here”.
Roh said any withdrawal of US forces could not affect the military ability of the 600,000-strong South Korean forces, even though the size of the army might be reduced.
“I wouldn’t allow a cut in military expenses,” he told the forum. “I might cut down the size of the military, however the strength has to be strengthened.” – Reuters