Possibility of USFK reduction growing

30-Oct-2020 Intellasia | KoreaTimes | 6:02 AM Print This Post

With the annual South Korean-US ministerial defense talks ending without mentioning Washington’s commitment to maintaining the current level of the US Forces Korea (USFK), speculation is sharply escalating that the US government may withdraw some American troops from the Korean Peninsula, in much the same manner as it did from Germany.

Experts say a USFK troop reduction will be a possible scenario as part of the US strategic flexibility policy, aimed at optimising its forces to successfully respond to challenges around the globe, but it will not be because of either a stalled defense cost-sharing deal or a discord in the decades-long alliance between the two sides.

Earlier this month, Defense minister Suh Wook and his US counterpart Mark Esper held the 52nd Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in Washington, D.C., but a joint communique released after the event failed to refer to the US’ commitment to keeping its troops here at the current level of 28,500.

In a written answer to questions from Rep. Kang Dae-sik of the main opposition People Power Party earlier this week, the Ministry of National Defense acknowledged that the US government is currently flexibly adjusting its troop deployments overseas.

“The US has already begun to review adjusting its military presence overseas, including the USFK,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University.

The US strategic flexibility comes down to reducing the number of its troops abroad; pursuing more rotational forces and bringing more troops back home to train them directly for missions related to potential conflicts, according to Park.

“In that respect, the upkeep of 28,500 troops here is meaningless to the US,” Park said, adding the planned withdrawal of 9,500 troops from Germany is in line with the strategic flexibility.

Shin Jong-woo, a senior researcher of the Korea Defense and Security Forum, echoed Park’s view.

“The US is now showing it is in pursuit of greater strategic flexibility. For example, the US troops stationed in Germany conducted a live-fire drill with multiple rocket launchers in Estonia, while sending strategic bombers from the continental US to Europe and the Pacific,” Shin said, adding that the USFK has participated in the Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand.

“Should the USFK’s main mission shift to dealing with potential threats in the Asia-Pacific region, some of its troops may be redeployed to other countries such as Thailand or the Philippines as part of such strategic flexibility.”

Shin added: “Given that North Korea’s threats from conventional weapons are still there, a drastic troop cut is out of the question.”

The troop cut speculation comes as the allies have yet to finalise the cost-sharing negotiations for the USFK presence after over a year due to US President Donald Trump’s demand for a 50 percent increase in the South’s share from last year, or $1.3 billion (1.47 trillion won). Korea is maintaining its proposal of a 13 percent increase from the previous cost-sharing accord of $860 million.

Amid the ongoing deadlock, Trump is said to have unofficially mentioned withdrawing American troops from the South, seen as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.

But experts say the deadlock in the defense cost-sharing deal does not directly lead to a forecast of troop cuts.

“The redeployment of the US military has been proceeded with under strategic flexibility and it is not related to the defense cost-sharing deal. The policy was adopted in 2000 under the George Bush administration, but the September 11 attacks put it on the shelf,” Park said.

“Trump is using this as a bargaining chip. Even if Joe Biden wins the election, the US military’s strategic flexibility is likely to continue.”

Shin also said, “Disagreement over the defense cost-sharing deal is not an issue only for us. Germany, Japan and NATO are also pressured to increase their financial contribution. This needs to be seen as a change in US defense strategy.”



Category: Korea

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