The U.S. military is sending 800 more troops, as well as tanks and armored vehicles to South Korea in February, the Pentagon announced Tuesday, as the latest step in America's attempts to quell perceived instability in the Pacific rim.
The unit from the 1st U.S. Cavalry Division based out of Fort Hood, Texas, will arrive at camps Hovey and Stanley in South Korea by Feb. 1, according to a Defense Department release, to "conduct operations in support of U.S. Forces Korea and Eighth Army." The troops will remain for nine months until they are replaced by another unit.
The cavalry troops will bring with them roughly 40 tanks and 40 M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, says Marine Lt. Col. Jeff Pool, a Pentagon spokesman. These vehicles will remain in South Korea for replacement units to use.
This plan, part of the United States' overarching strategy of rebalancing to the Pacific, has been in the works for years, Pool says. The 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment was specifically tapped for the deployment roughly seven months ago.
The announcement follows a meeting at the Pentagon Monday between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Yun Byung-se, the South Korean foreign minister.
"The two discussed the importance of maintaining a robust combined defense of the Korean Peninsula as a strong deterrent against provocations from North Korea," said Pentagon press secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby in a readout of their meeting.
Strengthening alliances and deterring North Korea and China are the centerpieces of the so-called Pacific rebalance, the sweeping and at times ill-defined centerpiece of President Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda.
North Korea dominated headline space in 2013 as young dynastic leader Kim Jong Un, believed to be 30, threatened military action in an attempt to assert his untested authority. Its military tested nuclear weapons in February, brokered an arms deal with Cuba in July and held captive an American veteran of the Korean War in December, among other exploits.
In response to some of these provocations, the U.S. deployed missile shields, as well as stealth bombers and fighter jets to perform fly-bys. Senior officials also increased rhetoric on the importance of protecting its allies.
And who could forget the role that Dennis Rodman played? The former Chicago Bull and professional eccentric remains in North Korea on his latest visit to bring about an exhibition basketball game featuring other American players.
Most recently – and perhaps most troubling – Kim publicly condemned supposed corruption among his most inner circles and touted the subsequent execution of his uncle.
Secretary of State John Kerry said in a December interview with ABC that the execution shows "how ruthless and reckless" Kim is.
"It tells us a significant amount about the instability internally of the regime, with the numbers of executions," Kerry said. "And most importantly, it underscores the importance for all of us of finding a way forward with North Korea in order to denuclearize the peninsula. It's an ominous sign of the instability and of the danger that does exist."
The biggest question for the future of North Korean power remains whether the "glorious leader" now feels comfortable in consolidating power, or whether the last year has demonstrated the weakness of his position.
"In one statement, the North Koreans just revealed how bad their domestic problems are, themselves," says David Straub, a professor at Stanford University and expert on the hermetic nation, regarding the execution of Jang Song Thaek. "That's something they spent decades [under Kim Jong Il] trying to tell their own people: That everything is 'hunky dory.'"
Straub points to European history as a model for what Kim may be attempting to achieve in purging senior officials close to the position of ultimate power over fears they might incite a rivalry.