U.S. Hint at Troop Pullout Points to Major Crisis

      November 21, 2019 13:30

      There are rumblings in the administration of notoriously peevish U.S. President Donald Trump that it will pull some troops out of Korea unless Seoul agrees to pay an exorbitant bill for their upkeep. Asked about the possibility of downsizing the number of American troops stationed in South Korea, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, "I'm not going to prognosticate or speculate on what we may or may not do." The new U.S. defense secretary is fully aware of the impact that a troop downsizing would have on the security situation on the Korean Peninsula, and it is obvious why he gave such an ambiguous answer after cost-sharing talks collapsed on Tuesday.

      He wishes to use that threat as leverage in negotiations aimed at getting South Korea to quintuple its share of the expenses to keep 28,500 American soldiers stationed here. Just four days ago, Esper had vowed to "maintain current U.S. troop levels and improve combat readiness." But less than an hour after the U.S. broke off the talks in Seoul, he turned tail, presumably at the orders of his commander in chief.

      Even to talk about troop downsizing here was practically taboo under previous U.S. and South Korean administrations. But that and much else went out the window with Trump. The U.S. leader is for some reason obsessed with the notion that Korea is stiffing him. Since he simply cannot see the value and purpose of the longstanding alliance, U.S. troops here are simply a "waste of money." One U.S. military publication wrote early this year that fears are mounting over U.S. troop downsizing on the Korean Peninsula. Even the U.S. representative to defense cost-sharing talks acknowledged that possibility. In the 1970s, it was active-duty soldiers blocked then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter when he sought to downsize the number of soldiers stationed here, but now even the head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff has raised questions about the cost of keeping American soldiers here. Former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and other officials who were supportive of American troop presence here are no longer with the Trump administration. Nobody knows what may happen next.

      Once Seoul lets an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan lapse, Trump will probably escalate his threat of downsizing or withdrawing troops here. But President Moon Jae-in insists that while he will "think of alternatives" to scrapping it, he must stay the course in his standoff with Tokyo. This is no time to worry about saving face.

      If American troops pull out of South Korea, the country will have no choice but to arm itself with nuclear weapons. The South Korean government and public will probably be deeply divided on that issue. No matter what happens, South Korea needs to protect its alliance with the U.S. and keep American troops stationed here to serve as a deterrent against North Korean aggression. The alliance faces a major crisis, but the government insists that everything is hunky-dory. We can only pray that it knows what it is doing.

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