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Esper says no troop removal in Korea, leaves room for change

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper (AP-Yonhap)
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper (AP-Yonhap)

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday he has issued “no orders to withdraw forces in the Korean Peninsula,” but left the door open, saying the Pentagon seeks to optimize US forces through troop adjustments at every command worldwide.

“I continue to want to pursue more rotational force deployments into theaters, because it gives us greater strategic flexibility in terms of responding to challenges around the globe,” Esper said at a virtual event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Esper and his predecessor James Mattis have recently championed the “rotational force deployments” because they think it better serves American interest rotating forces in and out of countries rather than fixing them there, which allies like Korea prefer.

The Wall Street Journal, citing an unnamed US official, reported Friday that in March the US State Department had presented the White House with options to cut the number of American troops here as part of repositioning US forces globally.

President Donald Trump has not publicly addressed the report, while a Pentagon official was quoted as saying in response, “We routinely review global force posture, and the president has been clear and consistent regarding cost sharing worldwide.”

The US State Department highlighted its support of the joint defense of Korea, saying, “The department’s commitment to the Republic of Korea is strong,” following Esper’s latest remarks on a potential American troop pullout.

“We’re committed to being prepared to fight tonight if necessary.”

On Monday, US Rep. Ami Bera (D-California) introduced in the House a revision to a State Department budget bill that would effectively bar President Trump from unilaterally pulling out of a mutual defense treaty with Korea.

The treaty is a legal framework for American forces here, signed three months after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in July in an armistice. The treaty commits members to assist another member under attack.

Bera told Voice of America the revision was inspired by the latest reports on a potential drawdown of American troops in Korea.

A month earlier, he rolled out another bill on both the House and Senate that would mandate the US president consult the US Congress before making changes to the mutual defense treaty.

Currently, Korea is hosting 28,500 American troops, gradually reduced from 85,500 in 1955.

By Choi Si-young (