The US 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 yesterday 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 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 defence department spokesman, said yesterday. "This gives commanders in Korea an additional capability."
But the US and South Korean governments are closely 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. "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 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 deployment is part of a longer-term effort to change the US military's posture and presence in Asia, according to David Maxwell, associate director of the Centre for Security Studies and the security studies programme at Georgetown University in Washington.
By sending the newest tanks, the military "is trying to undo the continuous decline of US combat capabilities in the last decade," Maxwell said.
The US has kept troop levels in South Korea at about 28,500 since an April 2008 agreement between the Bush administration and the South Korean government. The number had been closer to 35,000 for years before that accord. South Korea is also set to take over wartime control of its 640,000 troops from the US in December 2015.
One concern South Korea may have is that US 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," he said.
The US 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.