The U.S. is strengthening its military capabilities on the peninsula as an unpredictable North Korea continues to pose a security threat here and throughout the region.
Seoul officials said Tuesday that the U.S. planned to deploy an 800-strong mechanized infantry battalion, equipped with advanced battle tanks and armored vehicles, to the first brigade of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division north of Seoul this year.
The new deployment plan comes as concerns have increased over the stability of the leadership in Pyongyang following the execution last month of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“It is true that a mechanized infantry battalion of the U.S. Army will be deployed here temporarily,” Seoul’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Kim Min-seok said during a regular briefing.
“The U.S. Department of Defense has been pushing for and considering the rotational deployment of its forces around the world to meet the demands of its battle commanders. In line with this, the unit will be sent here, as far as I understand.”
Troops of the mechanized unit are expected to begin their nine-month tour here around February, a military source said. The unit will not affect the current U.S. troop level of 28,500 on the peninsula, while its role will be limited to maintaining deterrence against the North, he added.
The ministry spokesperson said that the “Land Partnership Plan” to relocate U.S. bases north of Seoul down to Pyeongtaek in Gyeonggi Province by 2016 would be carried out as scheduled, stressing that the planned deployment of the battalion had nothing to do with the LPP.
He also dismissed the new reports that the allied militaries are pushing to retain some residual U.S. troops north of Seoul to counter North Korea’s continuing military threats.
“The reports are not true. There is no agreement whatsoever as to any residual U.S. troops north of Seoul,” he said.
The media reports on the possibility of residual forces in frontline areas came after U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said in November that Washington was considering the possibility.
“In terms of the residual in what we call Area One, there may be a need operationally to leave some residual in those areas just for proper defense and response. Again, those are under consideration and there has been no decision,” he said.
The mechanized battalion will be the latest addition to the U.S. Forces Korea.
Last April, the 23rd Chemical Battalion returned to Camp Stanley in Uijeongbu north of Seoul some nine years after its withdrawal. Last October, the 4th Squadron and 6th Cavalry Regiment, consisting of 30 OH-58D Kiowa Warriors and around 380 troops, also returned to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek some five years after their pullout.
According to Park Won-gon, a security expert at Handong Global University, the U.S. plan to strengthen its military presence on the peninsula appears aimed at bolstering deterrence against the North and preventing any inter-Korean conflict from escalating into a full-scale war.
“There appears to be two sides to the dispatch of more U.S. forces here. One is to prepare against North Korean provocations. But Washington may also seek to prevent any provocation, should it occur, from escalating into an all-out war,” he said.
“The new dispatch to the northern part of Gyeonggi Province would also help prevent miscalculations by North Korea.”
As Washington has sought to pursue its so-called rebalancing policy toward the Asia-Pacific, it has strengthened its military presence in the geostrategically crucial region.
Some analysts said that from a broader strategic perspective, a stronger military presence on the peninsula could also help the U.S. rein in China’s increasing assertiveness, which Washington fears could undermine the rule-based regional order.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com)