Trump considering troop reduction in South Korea: report

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The Pentagon has reportedly given the White House options to reduce the U.S. troop presence in South Korea following President Trump’s demands that Seoul pay significantly more to keep U.S. forces there.

A U.S. military official told The Wall Street Journal that the Pentagon’s Joint Staff has reviewed forces in South Korea — currently 28,500 troops strong — as part of a broader look at potentially repositioning and reducing deployments across the globe.

The Defense Department referred questions to the White House, which did not respond to requests for comment.

The potential move drew immediate blowback from Congressional lawmakers, including Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who called such a decision “strategic incompetence.”

“We don’t have missile systems in South Korea as a welfare program; we have troops and munitions there to protect Americans,” Sasse said in a statement. “Our aim is to give the Chinese communist leadership and the nuclear nut tyrannizing his North Korean subjects something to think about before they mess with us.”

The Trump administration has frequently concerned allies with threats to pull U.S. troops from strategic locations. Most recently, Trump last month announced that he plans to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Germany. The president framed the drawdown as a response to Berlin owing billions to NATO, though member contributions to the alliance are measured in spending on their own militaries.

That drawdown plan has also sparked a bipartisan backlash from lawmakers who say it would undermine U.S. alliances and benefit Russia.

Reducing U.S. troops on the peninsula would also be seen as a win for North Korea, which has long pressed for U.S. forces to leave Seoul and would itself have to make no major compromises for the drawdown.

The administration since 2018 has already canceled several large-scale military exercises between the United States and South Korea in an effort to move along nuclear disarmament talks with Pyongyang.

However, North Korea, which sees the U.S. troops and the war games as an open threat, has largely gone back on supposed promises to shut down rocket launch sites and dismantle its nuclear program.

The potential decision to pull troops from South Korea comes as Washington and Seoul have yet to reach a solid cost-sharing agreement after the last one expired Dec. 31. The deal, known as the Special Measures Agreement, lapsed amid the Trump administration’s demands for South Korea to pay significantly more to base U.S. troops there.

The two countries in June reached a temporary deal that lasts through the end of the year, but Trump has insisted South Korea contribute about $5 billion a year, or about 400 percent more than what it paid in the now-expired agreement. Both sides say the administration’s demands have since softened, but a new deal has yet to be reached.

The U.S. has had service members based in South Korea since the Korean War, with the two countries in 1991 signing the first of several subsequent deals for Seoul to provide money and support to offset U.S. costs.

South Korea’s most recent offer increases its payment by 13 percent from the previous deal for the first year, with annual increases after that of about 7 percent.  

Trump rejected the plan.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, have already moved to prevent the Trump administration from taking it upon itself to reduce troops in South Korea. Last year’s annual defense policy bill, signed into law in December, banned funding used to reduce the number of troops in the country unless the Pentagon certified it was in the national interest and that consultations had been made with both South Korea and Japan.

The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the bill this year seeks to take the roadblocks a step further, adding requirements to certify that a troop reduction is commensurate to a reduction in threat from North Korea and that South Korea would still be capable of deterring a conflict on the peninsula. 

—Updated at 4:40 p.m.

Tags Ben Sasse Donald Trump Korean War North Korea Overseas military bases South Korea Wall Street Journal
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