The U.S. is sending 800 additional troops to South Korea with upgraded equipment, the Pentagon said, citing the Obama administration’s rebalance of forces to the Asia-Pacific region.
“There is no greater sign of the United States commitment to regional security than the 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea,” Secretary of State John Kerry said today in Washington in an appearance with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se. “It’s clear the foundations of this relationship are built to endure.”
The small addition to those forces already stationed in South Korea “was long-planned and part of our enduring commitment to security on the Korean peninsula,” Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman, told reporters at the Pentagon today. “This gives commanders in Korea an additional capability.”
The U.S. and South Korean governments are watching the actions of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after he ordered his uncle and second-in-command, Jang Song Thaek, executed on treason charges last month. The purge prompted South Korea to heighten combat readiness along its border with North Korea, and President Park Geun Hye has voiced worries that Kim may seek a provocation to consolidate his support.
The added troops may be a reflection of concern about Kim, said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based policy research group.
“Although he’s continuing the policies of his father and grandfather, he may be doing it in a more brutal and unpredictable level,” Klingner said in an interview. “We saw him willing to take tensions on the Korean peninsula to a dangerous level last year, and so there is concern about what may happen in 2014.”
The 1st Battalion of the 12th Cavalry Regiment, part of the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division based at Fort Hood, Texas, will be equipped with about 40 new M1A2 Abrams tanks and 40 of the latest model Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Warren said. The vehicles will stay in Korea after the personnel complete their nine-month rotation, he said.
The regiment has prepared for possible action in Korea at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. Starting Feb. 1, the 1st Battalion will be stationed for the nine months at U.S. Camps Hovey and Stanley, north of Seoul and near the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea.
The deployment is part of a longer-term effort to change the U.S. military’s posture and presence in Asia, according to David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University in Washington.
By sending the newest tanks, the military “is trying to undo the continuous decline of U.S. combat capabilities in the last decade,” Maxwell said in an interview.
The U.S. deployment is the first increase in forces since April 2008, when the Bush administration agreed with the South Korean government to keep 28,500 troops there. The number had been been closer to 35,000 for years before that agreement.
One concern South Korea may have is that U.S. fiscal constraints could at some point prompt an end to troop rotations, Maxwell said. “There has to be a strong commitment to ensure there’s a strong rotational presence so there’s an adequate presence to defend against the North,” Maxwell said.
The U.S. and South Korea can best deter North Korea “by showing strength and resolve and then by deploying the right forces ready for contingencies, from war to collapse to provocation,” Maxwell said.
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