TOKYO — After two days of talks with South Korean officials, a senior U.S. Defense Department official said on Tuesday that a major realignment was being planned in U.S. troop deployments in that country in order to meet the threat posed by North Korea.
The deputy secretary of defense, Paul D. Wolfowitz, all but stated that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, a move intended to take them out of easy range of North Korean artillery, and theoretically position the United States to mount a pre-emptive attack against the North.
"Of course, any basic changes we make to our ground posture here will affect the 2nd Infantry Division," Wolfowitz told a news conference in Seoul. "That's the heart of what we have here in peace time."
In recent months, South Korea has opposed the move, fearing that it would raise tensions on the Korean peninsula and make a war more likely. The country's new president, Roh Moo-hyun, has asked the Bush administration to postpone any redeployment of the 2nd Infantry Division until "after the nuclear issue has been resolved."
Roh's comments refer to North Korea's suspected development of nuclear weapons. North Korea provoked a crisis over the issue in December, when it withdrew from a nuclear nonproliferation agreement and expelled international nuclear inspectors from the country.
Wolfowitz, who flew to Tokyo on Monday night to meet with Japanese officials for discussions that were also expected to focus on North Korea, sought to allay fears in the region that the United States was emphasizing military measures in its approach to the impoverished communist country.
North Korea "is teetering on the edge of economic collapse," The Associated Press quoted Wolfowitz as saying. "That, I believe, is a major point of leverage."
U.S. officials said that Washington was willing to hold a new round of multilateral talks with North Korea, following three-party talks held in China in April.
In discussing the coming realignment of U.S. troops, Pentagon officials have recently made clear that the changes were being made with the possibility of war in mind.
"While we can't completely compensate for the fact that North Korea has so much stuff right up forward on the DMZ, we could begin taking it down from the first hour of the war, and that would make a big difference," a senior Pentagon official told Reuters. "It would save lives and ultimately it has to strengthen deterrence."
Officials said that in case of war, U.S. and South Korean troops could be dispatched directly to the interior of the country in pursuit of the North Korean leadership, a strategy that was inspired, in part, by the U.S. military experience in Iraq.
Wolfowitz's visit coincided with a rare trip to North Korea by a delegation of American congressmen, who said they had confirmed both that North Korea is building nuclear weapons, and that it is willing to potentially negotiate those weapons away, in exchange for security guarantees.
"They admitted to having just about completed the reprocessing of 8,000 rods, and they admitted to an effort to expand their nuclear production program," Rep. Curt Weldon, a R-Penn., was quoted as telling Reuters in Seoul.
"I believe North Korea is willing to end their nuclear program for some assurances from the United States that we are not seeking a regime change there," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said in a written statement.
"They believe the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein as part of the 'axis of evil' and they could be next. I got the feeling from the North Koreans that they are using their nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip to prevent the U.S. from toppling their government," the statement said.