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Speculation rises over possible reduction of U.S. troops here

Attention is being drawn to whether there would be any U.S. troop drawdown here on the Korean Peninsula should the U.S. slash its defense budget as part of a deficit reduction plan.

As U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is to come here for the annual South Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting slated for Friday, speculations abound that discussions over it could take place.

The U.S. defense budget faces cuts of up to $350 billion over the next decade. Observers have thought that Washington might mull reductions in its spending for overseas military operations, including those in Asia.

During his visit to Indonesia as part of his first Asian tour, which includes Japan and South Korea, he indicated that there would not be a reduction in the U.S. military presence in the Asia Pacific region.

The U.S. currently stations 28,500 troops, who mainly serve as deterrence against North Korea.

“Let me assure you that we will not be reducing our presence in Asia. Through our defense posture, relationships and capacity-building activities in the region, we will continue to build stronger and more effective partnerships in the region,” Panetta said during a meeting of defense chiefs in Bali on Sunday.

Seoul officials also anticipated that there will not be any reduction in the U.S. troop strength.

“U.S. defense officials have repeatedly said during official bilateral meetings that the U.S. Forces Korea will maintain its current troop number,” a high-level government official was cited as saying by the Yonhap news agency.

“Based on this commitment, both sides may include the expression of maintaining the current troop level in a joint statement at the close of the SCM.”

Experts here differed over the possibility of troop reductions.

“In terms of geopolitics, Korea is, for the U.S., a crucial point as a counterbalance in Northeast Asia. Thus, the U.S. would take much caution about the troop reduction here,” Chun In-young, emeritus professor at Seoul National University, told The Korea Herald.

“But what we should prepare for is the possibility that the U.S. stance may get tough in its negotiations with Seoul over the burden-sharing cost. It could apply more pressure on South Korea to shoulder more for the stationing of its troops here (should it decide not to curtail its troop level).”

Lee Dae-woo, senior research fellow at Sejong Institute, believes that the U.S. may significantly reduce its ground troop number in line with the budget reduction plan.

“I have thought that the U.S. would cut its ground troops as it is set to hand over wartime operational control to Seoul in 2015 and relocate its troops down to Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province,” he said.

“The U.S. may seek to bolster its power for the Air Force and Navy to make up for the reduction in ground troops. What is worrisome is not only the troop reduction, but the firepower it would withdraw from Korea. I think the two governments will wisely work it out based on its long-standing alliance.”

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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