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[Up close in Yeouido] Trump hinting at US troop removal in South Korea ‘election-time talk’

By Kim Arin

Published : May 21, 2024 - 18:06

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Rep. Han Ki-ho speaks to The Korea Herald during an interview held at the office of the National Assembly national defense committee chair in Yeouido, central Seoul, on May 14. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Rep. Han Ki-ho speaks to The Korea Herald during an interview held at the office of the National Assembly national defense committee chair in Yeouido, central Seoul, on May 14. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

The former US President Donald Trump hinting at possibly pulling troops from South Korea was “election rhetoric that does not align with the mainstream thinking in Washington,” according to Rep. Han Ki-ho, the chair of the National Assembly’s national defense committee.

The former three-star Army general, who won a fourth term in the Assembly in the April general election, told The Korea Herald that the statements from Trump were an “election-time talk for a domestic audience meant to get votes” that has “little likelihood of actually being implemented.”

“Trump has consistently questioned keeping US military in South Korea, and once again suggested in a recent interview that he might withdraw troops from here if we don’t pay more,” the lawmaker with the ruling People Power Party said.

In an April 30 interview with Time magazine, Trump said that the US troops in South Korea were “in a somewhat precarious position,” adding, “Why would we defend somebody … and we’re talking about a very wealthy country.”

Han, who served on the Assembly defense committee all throughout his three terms, said that he doesn’t believe the US Congress would go along with the former president’s proposal.

“If Trump indeed tries to pull US troops out of South Korea, could it pass the Congress? I doubt that,” he said.

He pointed out that the minimum number of US service members in South Korea was something that is “bound by law,” as specified in the National Defense Authorization Act, the federal laws on military budget and expenditures.

“I think Trump is aware troop withdrawal would be met by resistance in the Congress,” he said. “So we shouldn’t assume so quickly that Trump winning a second time would mean the US troops being reduced much less removed.”

Besides, the presence of the US military in South Korea also serves Washington’s national security interests of maintaining a strategic balance in Northeast Asia, more specifically as a check on Beijing, he said.

“Drawing down US troops in South Korea does not align with the existing ways and policies of Washington on China,” he said. “By cutting military presence in the region, the front lines of US influence and extended deterrence would retreat as far back as Japan.”

Han said that the US removing troops would hurt justification for barring South Korea from going nuclear. A growing trope of politicians in Seoul, many of them his ruling party colleagues, were advocating for the country to get nuclear weapons against the backdrop of uncertainties posed by a Trump White House.

He said that while he was against breaking the commitments to non-proliferation, such threats from Washington would foster security anxiety in Seoul, which is already seeing a rise in North Korean provocations so far in the year.

He said President Yoon Suk Yeol together with President Joe Biden “were able to reach what I believe is the best possible solution” with the deepened alliance as outlined in the Washington Declaration in April last year.

For one thing, the Declaration has made the US strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula “more visible than ever, creating an impact of nuclear deterrence by nuclear weapons without South Korea actually owning any.”

That being said, Han said that South Korea ought to “prepare for the worst scenario.”

“On the diplomatic front, the South Korean government as well as the Assembly ought to strengthen our relationship with the US Congress to ensure that troop withdrawal won’t go through, regardless of who is elected president in November.”

In this series, The Korea Herald sits down with members of the National Assembly to discuss top political events and issues affecting Seoul and beyond from South Korea’s heart of power in Yeouido. -- Ed.