Reports over the weekend of the US weighing a possible troop reduction in South Korea put officials here on edge again. A Seoul official, however, tried to play down the media speculation, saying adjusting the US’ military presence here has not been discussed.
“There has been no discussion between the two countries regarding the reduction of the US forces here, nor a notification from the US,” a Defense Ministry official told The Korea Herald, declining to comment further on the report.
The Wall Street Journal on Friday reported the US Department of Defense in March offered the White House options to cut the current level of about 28,500 troops stationed in Korea, as part of a broader reexamination of repositioning and potentially reducing military deployments worldwide, citing an unnamed US military official. The report said no decision has yet been made on the troop cut.
The Pentagon reviewed such possibilities in response to the White House’s request last fall for options on extracting troops worldwide, including from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, the report added. Defense authorities had come up with broad ideas by December, and in March they refined a number of options and presented them to the White House, including some for South Korea.
“We won’t comment on press speculation,” a Pentagon official told Yonhap News Agency in regards to the report. “We routinely review global force posture, our forces remain postured to respond to any threat, and the president has been clear and consistent regarding cost sharing worldwide.”
This echoes a statement by the US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, released on the same day, saying the US is working toward “reallocating, reassigning and redeploying” its forces spread around the world, in accordance to the National Defense Strategy. He added the military will also start reviewing the Indo-Pacific Command -- which the US Forces Korea is part of -- in the coming months.
US President Donald Trump recently decided to remove 9,500 American troops from bases in Germany by September, bringing the number there to 25,000 from 34,500, saying Berlin has been “delinquent” in its contributions to NATO.
US’ sudden troop cut in one of its closest European allies over cost issues raised concern that it could mull similar action here, as the two remain at odds over shouldering costs for the upkeep of US forces in South Korea.
Washington and Seoul have yet to conclude the defense cost-sharing talks for 2020, even after the previous pact, the Special Measures Agreement, expired at the end of last year, amid Trump’s demand for South Korea to pay significantly more.
Trump initially asked Seoul to pay $5 billion -- a fivefold increase from the previous year’s 1.04 trillion won ($863 million) -- because “rich countries” like South Korea should contribute more for their defense.
After rounds of negotiations, the two were close to reaching an agreement until Trump rejected what Seoul called its “best offer” of a 13 percent hike from last year. The US is reportedly now requesting $1.3 billion -- an increase of about 50 percent from the previous year.
Observers view the US’ latest threat to cut military personnel as intended to gain leverage on the drawn-out negotiations.
A senior US administration official stressed that Seoul and other American allies should “contribute more,” while noting the defense cost talks between Seoul and Washington are still ongoing.
“The president has been clear in the expectation that our allies around the world, including South Korea, can and should contribute more,” the official said.
Former US national security adviser John Bolton, in his recent memoir “The Room Where It Happened,” said President Trump had threatened to pull out US troops from Seoul multiple times to pressure Seoul to pay more.
Bolton in a recent interview with local media outlet Chosun Ilbo said Trump could consider reducing the level of troops in Korea before the US presidential election in November, if he feels it to be necessary.
By Ahn Sung-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org