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U.S. 'may withdraw from S. Korea'

Rumsfeld says South Korea is entirely capable of deterring a North Korean attack.
Rumsfeld says South Korea is entirely capable of deterring a North Korean attack.

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WASHINGTON -- The United States says it is considering relocating or even withdrawing American troops stationed in South Korea.

Speaking in Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the deployment of troops in both South Korea and Europe was a leftover from the Cold War and was being examined as part of a Pentagon re-evaluation of the U.S. military presence outside the United States.

"Whether the forces would come home or whether they'd move farther south on the peninsula or whether they'd move to some neighboring area are the kinds of things that are being sorted out," Rumsfeld said.

"The same thing's true with our forces in Western Europe."

His comments came as a senior Pentagon official warned North Korea not to misjudge the United States or think the build up to a possible war with Iraq is diverting its attention from tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Speaking to CNN, the official said that if North Korea is "counting on us to be risk averse, they may misjudge us."

Citing the recent mid-air interception of a U.S. surveillance plane by North Korean MiG fighter jets -- an incident he called a "very serious" provocation -- he said Bush administration officials were worried about the potential for miscalculation by the government of Kim Jong Il.

The official also had strong words for the governments of China and Russia, both of whom he said remained "happy to evade their responsibility" for helping to end the danger of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Responding to criticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill that the U.S. should agree to meet North Korea bilaterally, the official said the Bush administration wants to deal with the problem in a multilateral way.

On that, he said, "I think being stubborn pays off."

The official said North Korea wants bilateral talks -- excluding South Korea and other regional nations -- because "they think they can get more goodies from us" that way.

'Stabilizing force'

The United States has maintained some 37,000 troops on the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War 50 years ago as a "stabilizing force" and deterrent against North Korea.

However, in his comments Thursday Rumsfeld said he believed that role may be nearing the end of its useful life with South Korea now having the capability to deter any North Korean attack itself.

With a powerful economy and a better-equipped military force than the North, he said Seoul had "all the capability in the world of providing the kind of up-front deterrent that's needed."

U.S. troops deployed in South Korea were, he said, "arranged very far forward ... where they

really aren't very flexible or usable for other things."

He added that discussions were underway with South Korean officials ahead of making any final decision.

His comments came as the United States braces itself for a possible war with Iraq with military planners looking to build more flexibility into the U.S. armed forces overseas presence.

Some critics of the Bush administration argue that a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea presents a far greater global threat than Saddam Hussein and should be given more attention.

South Korean critics meanwhile have argued that the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula couple with the Bush administration's hard line on Pyongyang has actually hindered the development of closer ties with the North.

-- CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor and Reuters contributed to this report.

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