US considers pulling up to 4,000 troops from South Korea

US and South Korean soldiers attend the 5th ROK-US alliance dinner in Seoul on Nov 14, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - The United States is considering a significant cut to its troop numbers in South Korea if Seoul does not contribute more to the cost of the deployment, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported on Thursday (Nov 21).

Washington broke off defence cost talks with South Korea this week after demanding Seoul raise its annual contribution to US$5 billion (S$6.8 billion), more than five times what it pays now, in a rare public display of discord in the alliance.

Neither side has publicly confirmed the numbers, but President Donald Trump has said the US military presence in and around South Korea was "US$5 billion worth of protection".

"I understand that the US is preparing to withdraw one brigade in case negotiations with South Korea do not go as well as President Trump wants," a diplomatic source in Washington with knowledge of the negotiations was cited as saying by Chosun Ilbo.

A typical US military brigade numbers about 3,000 to 4,000 troops. There are about 28,500 US troops currently stationed in South Korea, which remains technically in a state of war with nuclear-armed neighbour North Korea following their 1950-1953 conflict.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said he was not aware of any plans to withdraw 4,000 US troops from South Korea if cost-sharing talks failed.

"We're not threatening allies over this. This is a negotiation," he told reporters during a trip to Vietnam.

South Korea's defence ministry said the Chosun report was "not the official position of the US government".

Under US law, the American troop presence in South Korea must not fall below 22,000 unless the Secretary of Defence justifies a further reduction to Congress.

Chosun said the potential reduction of a brigade from US troops stationed in South Korea had already been discussed with the top brass of US forces in South Korea.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun said on Wednesday he believed the US should continue to station troops in South Korea, when asked if he would continue to advocate for the presence of US military personnel in the country if he is confirmed as deputy secretary of state.

"South Korea is among our most important alliance partners. That doesn't mean anybody gets a free ride. We have a tough burden-sharing negotiation that we're in the middle of with the South Koreans," Mr Biegun said.

South Korean political party leaders visited Washington on Wednesday to press for a fair and reasonable outcome of the cost-sharing talks.

"I stressed that a withdrawal of US troops from South Korea should not be brought up, as the South Korea-US alliance also helps the US national interest," said Na Kyung-won of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party.

Meanwhile, South Korea's intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, which Seoul decided to terminate after relations soured over historical issues and has become the subject of increasing US pressure to renew, is set to expire on Nov 23.

South Korea's presidential office is holding a National Security Council meeting on Thursday, where the agreement is expected to be discussed, South Korean media said.

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