US ready to withdraw South Korea troops

Despite the worsening confrontation with North Korea, Washington is considering pulling some or all of its 37,000 troops away from the South's border, and perhaps out of the Korean peninsula altogether.

At a question-and-answer session with Pentagon employees yesterday, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, said Washington's existing force deployments in Europe and Korea were a Cold War relic.

He added that the South Korean economy was "25 to 35 times" as large as that of the reclusive Communist north, meaning that Seoul had "all the capability in the world of providing the kind of upfront deterrent that's needed". In their current position, close to the Demilitarised Zone separating the two states, the American force was "intrusive" for the South Koreans and "not very flexible" for use elsewhere, Mr Rumsfeld said.

His words reflect the increasing controversy in the South over the presence of American troops. Some restaurants in Seoul have even warned off US servicemen after allegations of crimes committed against Korean civilians.

The South has also been critical of the Bush administration's hard line towards the North, saying that it has undermined its own efforts to build ties with its neighbour and contributed to the present escalation of tensions.

North Korea has restarted a nuclear reactor, which Washington says is only of use for military purposes.

A group of top former Clinton officials – led by Madeleine Albright, who as Secretary of State visited the North in 2000 – joined Senate Democrats in demanding immediate direct talks with Pyongyang.

George Bush has refused, claiming that to do so before North Korea renounced its nuclear ambitions would merely be appeasement of blackmail by a "rogue" regime.

The North's next and even more alarming step might be to switch on the reprocessing plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex north of Pyongyang, a possible prelude to the manufacture of several plutonium-based nuclear weapons by the summer. This would involve the transfer of 8,000 spent fuel rods now in a cooling pond to the plant.

But as Mr Rumsfeld made clear, the US would not be deterred from making troop adjustments. "Whether the forces would come home or whether they'd move south down the peninsula or to some neighbouring area" was in the final stages of discussion, he said.

The US strategy, analysts say, is to maintain its deterrent umbrella over South Korea, but from a longer range. A foretaste came yesterday with the arrival of a first batch of 24 B-1 and B-52 longer range bombers on the island of Guam, 2,000 miles from North Korean territory.

Washington insists the deployment is precautionary, intended as reminder to the North that the US could handle any crisis on Korea even as it massed forces in the Gulf for an invasion of Iraq. Washington wanted "to show countries throughout the region that we don't have all our eggs in one basket", a spokesman at the US Pacific Air Force headquarters in Hawaii said. But Pyongyang described the action last night as another "preparation for an attack".

Tensions escalated further at the weekend when North Korean fighters briefly intercepted a US reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan, in the first such incident since 1969.

Last year, Washington and Seoul agreed on a cut in the number of American bases in South Korea, from 41 to 25 over the next 10 years – but without reducing the overall strength of the US troops.

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