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No discussion on US troop reduction here: Defense Ministry

US President Donald Trump (AP-Yonhap)
US President Donald Trump (AP-Yonhap)

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense reaffirmed Monday that there has been no discussion between Seoul and Washington about cutting back the 28,500-strong US military presence here.

“We’ve touched on that issue several times before. Nothing has been discussed on that matter,” deputy spokesperson Moon Hong-sik told a regular briefing.

Moon added that a potential troop pullout will not be one of the talking points when the defense chiefs of South Korea and the US hold their next teleconference, whose date has yet to be set. The two were originally scheduled to talk over phone last month.

The Wall Street Journal, citing an unnamed US official, reported Friday that in March the US State Department had offered the White House the option to adjust the number of American troops here, as part of a global repositioning of the US military worldwide.

But the report said no decision had been made, with a local media outlet quoting a Pentagon official as saying in response: “We routinely review global force posture, and the president has been clear and consistent regarding cost sharing worldwide.”

The renewed speculation put Seoul on edge again. Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that the US had reduced its presence in Germany by roughly a third to 25,000 troops from 34,500. The Trump administration later acknowledged the pullout, citing Berlin’s “delinquent” contributions to NATO.

Military analysts said Washington was pressing Seoul to shoulder a greater percentage of the upkeep of the US soldiers stationed here to deter aggression from a nuclear-armed North Korea. The two sides have been deadlocked for some time over how to share the costs.

But a cut would not materialize quickly, the experts say.

“The security landscape in Northeast Asia, dominated by a belligerent Beijing and a nuclear Pyongyang, isn't like that of Europe. A reduced American presence isn’t what Washington wants,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

The US National Defense Authorization Act also makes a pullout extremely difficult because the defense secretary would have to persuade Congress after discussing the matter with both Seoul and Washington. 

But the US military here could circumvent the rule by indefinitely suspending the entry of US troops, who operate on a rotational basis. About 4,500 troops are moved between South Korea and the US every nine months.

Experts said that would not be easy for the US either.

“The US military would have to rewrite its operational strategy for the region because those troops carry out an integral part of a broader mission,” said Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum.

Shin of the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy pointed out that the US would have to cover the costs of keeping those rotation troops on its own soil, whereas South Korea bears that expense as long as the troops return here.

Some analysts, however, warned against dismissing the idea that a Trump-led US could not cut back its forces on the peninsula as “improbable.”

“Trump could put the word out first, saying a troop cut has been decided, and have that retracted later after seeing Seoul’s reaction. He’s sometimes unpredictable,” said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Choi added that it would not hurt the country if the Moon government had plans in place for a US pullout.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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