Should USFK Honor Pledge to Retreat South of Seoul?

USFK commander Curtis Scaparrotti told reporters on Monday that some American troops stationed here need to remain north of Seoul near the frontline "just for proper defense and response" once headquarters relocates south of the capital.

The entire USFK plans to retreat to a new base in Pyeongtaek in southwestern Gyeonggi Province by 2016. But the new commander feels the agreement, which was struck between the U.S. and South Korea, should be revised. The 2nd Infantry's artillery brigade and 23rd Chemical Battalion are apparently the most likely to stay behind.

It was the U.S. that first raised the prospect of relocating American troops south of the capital. Washington was reluctant to have its troops serve as "human tripwires" that would come under attack in case of a North Korean provocation, automatically drawing the U.S. into the conflict. But now that reluctance appears to have waned and the main cause of the shift is apparently the threat of North Korean chemical weapons.

North Korea has hidden around 350 artillery pieces in bunkers along the demilitarized zone that can rain tens of thousands of shells onto Seoul in an hour, and over the last decade it has concentrated thousands of tons of deadly chemical weapons, including sarin gas, along the border. If the North launched a surprise attack, Seoul would suffer massive damage and its strategic military installations would be compromised unless both the South Korean military and U.S. troops react quickly.

The USFK's artillery brigade has 30 multiple launch rocket systems that can pulverize North Korean artillery positions, as well as hundreds of rounds of 227 mm rockets and ATacMS surface-to-surface missiles. The 23rd Chemical Battalion is the world's best when it comes to detecting chemical weapons and cleaning up the damage they cause. If both of those units remain north of the Han River that bisects Seoul, they would retain their ability to respond quickly to North Korean provocations.

The U.S. classifies the area north of the Han River as the "Forward Edge of Battle Area." If U.S. troops in such an area in any part of the world come under attack, American forces on the mainland are automatically mobilized for battle. That policy acts as a powerful deterrent against potential North Korean aggression.

But if U.S. forces believe they need to remain north of the Han River, that means that South Korean troops are still incapable of independently thwarting a North Korean attack, even though the South has been bolstering its military strength to prepare for the handover of full operational control of troops to Seoul. If that is the case, then the handover of full operational control would be risky.

If a portion of USFK troops remain near the border, they could also provoke protests from residents of Dongducheon north of Seoul. At present, people there are preparing for redevelopment projects once the USFK leaves. The governments of both countries have their work cut out trying to make a convincing case for their change of heart.

englishnews@chosun.com / Nov. 27, 2013 12:49 KST