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[News Analysis] Would US pull troops from S. Korea?

Korean Peninsula different from Germany, but no guarantee Trump will stick to status quo, experts say

US President Donald Trump (AFP-Yonhap)
US President Donald Trump (AFP-Yonhap)

After Washington’s decision to cut its military presence in Germany, local experts said Monday that it is unlikely the United States will pursue a similar course of action here.

But the South Korean government should be ready for anything given US President Donald Trump’s unpredictable style, they added.

In a surprise move, Trump ordered the Pentagon to reduce the number of US troops in Germany by roughly a third, to 25,000, according to the Wall Street Journal on Friday. Seoul hosts about 28,500 American troops to deter aggression from Pyongyang.

Trump, leaving Berlin in the dark, made the decision after the German chancellor declined his invitation to an expanded Group of Seven meeting to be held in the US in September, and her government was less enthusiastic than Trump expected about paying more for the US troops there, experts said.

But given Northeast Asia’s security landscape, with a nuclear-powered North Korea and an increasingly belligerent China, it is unlikely that South Korea will see a unilateral restructuring of the American military presence, they said.

“The withdrawal of the American forces here would benefit North Korea, which has recently stepped up belligerence rather than engagement. It would also undermine efforts to rein in China, which is trying to wield clout,” Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, told The Korea Herald.

American interests are better served with its troops deployed in full strength here, and Washington is aware of that, Shin added.

“South Korea is important for dealing with North Korea and China whereas Germany is more important for Russia,” said Leif-Eric Easley, who teaches international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

The professor said Seoul-Washington ties were less bumpy as well, adding, “Seoul has arguably done a better job defraying US deployment costs, upgrading facilities in the country, and purchasing American defense equipment.”

Other experts concurred, but warned that Seoul should not completely rule out the pullout scenario, given Trump’s governance style.

“I wouldn’t push aside the slimmest possibility, though, that Washington might leverage the troop pullout to get its demands met in the defense cost-sharing talks,” said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

He added, “The drawn-out troop talks between Korea and the US would likely continue, with Seoul eventually agreeing to pay close to the $1.3 billion that Washington demands.”

South Korea and the US have been deadlocked in their defense talks, which started last September, largely because Washington is insisting on a dramatic hike in Seoul’s contribution.

Washington is pushing for $1.3 billion, 50 percent more than what Seoul paid last year. Seoul is adamant about a 13 percent increase.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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