March 08, 2021 09:49
A Pentagon nominee has alarmed some South Koreans by saying the troop strength of the U.S. Forces Korea is not a "magic number," suggesting it could be downsized or increased as needed.
Colin Kahl, the nominee for undersecretary of defense for policy, said in a confirmation hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday, "Our security commitment to [South] Korea is unshakable and consistent with the Mutual Defense Treaty." But he added this commitment "is not tied to a 'magic number' of forces, or to a specific capability, but rather to a 70-year alliance relationship based on common values and people-to-people ties."
He reminded the committee that U.S. President Joe Biden has recently announced a "global posture review to ensure that U.S. forces deployed globally are matched with the global threat environment."
"If confirmed, I look forward to reviewing... the necessary requirements of our major operational plans across the region to ensure that our global force is optimally deployed to meet emerging challenges, including those on the Korean Peninsula," he added.
The USFK's troop numbers are currently fixed at 28,500, and the president needs congressional approval if he wants to reduce them.
Biden's predecessor Donald Trump occasionally put pressure on Seoul to increase its defense contribution with a threat to reduce the numbers, and some U.S. defense policy makers believe that concentration of U.S. troops in Northeast Asia is not helpful as hegemonic competition intensifies between the U.S. and China.
Asked about the threat from China, Kahl stressed the need to "distribute" the U.S.' military presence in the Indo-Pacific region "so that we can counter the most likely scenarios for potential conflict with China and make it clear to Beijing that they can't win a potential conflict with the United States or our allies."
The U.S. seems to be casting around for a location for a new military base in Southeast Asia.
Asked if the USFK should remain focused on defense of South Korea or should also be available for regional or global operations, Kahl said, "The United States must maintain operational flexibility to ensure that our forces are optimized and ready to meet emerging threats to U.S. forces and allies and partners in the region and around the world."
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