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USFK's dream of 'tour normalization' hamstrung by military budget cut

The Pentagon's shoestring budget is taking its toll on a dream of U.S. soldiers to bring their families to South Korea -- the so-called "tour normalization" program.

Concerns are growing that South Korea may be forced to shoulder more of the financial burden for stationing 28,500 American troops on the peninsula, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

This year, Seoul and Washington are set for tough negotiations on how to split the cost for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) for 2014-2018.

The Pentagon faces massive spending cuts under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, signed by President Barack Obama earlier this week. It marks the second consecutive year that Congress has not earmarked any funds for the tour normalization program.

In 2008, the Department of Defense approved USFK's request for a two-year tour for single members of the service and three-year tours for married service members and their families.

The allies have been working to relocate U.S. military bases in and around Seoul to two expanded hub bases in Osan and Pyeongtaek, both south of the capital.

Currently, most of the American troops there serve on one-year unaccompanied tours.

If the relocation work is completed, the two compounds would accommodate most of U.S. soldiers and their families. USFK officials say tour normalization will eventually help enhance combat capability.

But the defense bill put the brakes on the tour normalization program.

U.S. lawmakers question whether tour normalization is the most cost-effective approach to meeting its strategic objectives.

The House Committee on Appropriations said earlier that it is "concerned that this investment may be an expense that the United States should not incur."

Already this year, the Pentagon revamped its military strategy as part of last year's deficit-cutting law that ordered an initial

$487 billion in spending cuts over the next 10 years. Additional budget reductions are possible.

"It reflects a grim reality facing the U.S. military amid efforts to reduce federal debts," a diplomatic source said. "The U.S. may ask for South Korea to share more burden for the stationing of the U.S. troops."

The Pentagon said it will follow the enacted military law but its commitment to the defense of Korea will be unchanged.

"We remain committed to the region and our allies," a spokeswoman for the Defense Department said. "It's too soon to tell, though, regarding any specific changes in budgets related to the stationing of U.S. troops in defense of South Korea." (Yonhap News)

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