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No discussion of US troop pullout here: Seoul official

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

There has been no talk whatsoever of scaling back the number of US troops stationed here, a Defense Ministry official confirmed Tuesday. The issue resurfaced here after the US announced it was reducing its military presence in Germany.

“Nothing has been discussed on that matter,” the Seoul official said under customary condition of anonymity, echoing what South Korea’s chief negotiator for the defense cost-sharing negotiations with the US had said earlier.

US President Donald Trump said Monday that he would cut the number of troops stationed in Germany, expressing disappointment at how little the European country is paying for the upkeep of the US troops there.

“So we’re protecting Germany and they’re delinquent. That doesn’t make sense. So I said, we’re going to bring down the count to 25,000 soldiers,” Trump told reporters. About 9,500 American troops would be returning home.

Trump called Germany “delinquent” for failing to pay more for its own defense.

The news sparked fresh speculation in Seoul over whether Washington would leverage the troop pullout to influence the prolonged defense cost-sharing talks for the upkeep of the 28,500 American troops here.

Analysts said that was highly unlikely.

“Trump seems intent on pressing Korea to give in to the US demands in the troop talks, but a US defense budget bill stops him from cutting back troops here,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute.

The US National Defense Authorization Act, passed in December, does not allow a reduction in the number of American troops here unless the US defense secretary proves that it would serve American interests or endanger the security of America’s allies, or it were agreed upon by all relevant parties after consultations.

Cheong dismissed the idea that exceptions to the law could open the way to withdrawing troops.

“Given North Korea’s escalating threats of aggression and South Korea’s unwavering commitment to the combat readiness of ROK-US combined forces, I wouldn’t weigh in too much on the exceptions,” said Cheong.

Harry J. Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, agreed, saying a “troop pullout as leverage” would be “nearly impossible” because of the defense law.

Kazianis said the fear of being branded soft on an increasingly belligerent Pyongyang would also make it harder for Trump to mull a pullout.

The defense cost-sharing talks between Korea and the US have been deadlocked because the two sides disagree on how much Seoul should pay. Washington is adamant about a dramatic hike.

“The two sides could find a breakthrough, though, sometime well before the US presidential election in coming November. Trump needs a big foreign policy win to rally supporters, and this could be it,” said Cheong.

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