SEOUL -- Washington wants to move some of the 37,000 US troops stationed in South Korea to Iraq, South Korean officials said today.
"The US government has told us that it needs to select some US troops in South Korea and send them to Iraq to cope with the worsening situation in Iraq," said Kim Sook, head of the South Korean Foreign Ministry's North American Bureau.
"South Korea and the United States are discussing the matter" and working out details, including the number of US troops to be redeployed, Kim said.
In Washington, a senior defense official confirmed that the Pentagon is in discussions with Seoul about using some Korea-based US forces in Iraq.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the shift was not imminent but would be part of the next rotation of American troops in Iraq, which is scheduled to begin late this summer.
Tapping into the US military force in Korea would be a historic move by the Pentagon. It underscores the degree to which the military is stretched as it seeks to provide enough forces for Iraq while meeting its other commitments. The United States has maintained troops in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Seoul has feared that a cut in US military presence might weaken the two allies' combined defense readiness against North Korea amid tension over the communist state's nuclear weapons program. The inter-Korean border remains the world's most heavily armed.
Washington officials have indicated that they planned to redeploy US troops from South Korea but would shore up forces there with newer weapons, including Patriot anti-missile systems.
The main US combat force in South Korea is the Army's 2d Infantry Division. One of its brigades has traditionally been stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., as a reserve force for Korea. That brigade, which was the first in the Army to make the transition from tanks to the new Stryker wheeled vehicle, is already in Iraq.