NORTH KOREA'S DOWNING OF a U.S. Army helicopter that strayed over its territory Dec. 17 raises a question that the Clinton administration would rather have unasked.

It is: Why are 37,000 American troops still deployed in vulnerable, front-line positions between the communist north and the capitalist south 41 years after the Korean War ended?Answers given by the White House and State Department have a ritual sound. The troops are there to keep the peace on the Korean Peninsula. They are present to deter a North Korean attack on our ally.

In truth, they are there because Washington hasn't adjusted to vast changes made in Asia over the past four decades.

When Kim Il Sung's legions poured over the demilitarized zone in 1950, the United States went to war because it feared Moscow and Beijing were about to take over all of Asia. The same fear led us into Vietnam.

To repel North Korean invaders and later Chinese "volunteers," the U.S. suffered 157,530 casualties, including 54,246 dead. A new Korean War might not be very much less costly.

But now North Korea is hungry and on the verge of economic collapse. Its former patrons seem uninterested in adventures and expansion.

And South Korea no longer is the impoverished ruin it was in 1953. With 44 million people, it has twice the population of the north. Its economy outstrips its rival's by tenfold. Its lead in technology is immense.

Seoul lacks only one thing: the willingness to make the sacrifices to match the North man for man, tank for tank, gun for gun.

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Why does the South refuse to attend to its own security although it has the means to do so? It believes in an economical defense, counting on the Americans to supply the reinforcements to turn the tide against a northern attack.

Since the late 1980s, Seoul's defense spending has dropped steadily as a percentage of its budget. Last year much of its military activity consisted of jailing, retiring and reassigning graft-taking officers.

Meanwhile, the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division is dug in between Seoul and the DMZ 30 miles away. Its wartime assignment? To get chewed up in a fighting retreat to allow time for more American troops to arrive.

No prudent person should call for an abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces. But Seoul should be given, say, five years' notice of a pullout of American ground troops and invited to adequately build up its forces.

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