By Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) – The top commander of U.S. troops in South Korea said on Wednesday he supports moves to withdraw some outposts along the fortified border with North Korea, despite the risks.
South Korea’s defence ministry has said it plans to reduce guard posts and equipment along the demilitarised zone (DMZ) on its border with North Korea as part of efforts to reduce tension and build trust with its northern neighbour.
“I have some concerns about what that means militarily for the ability to defend along the Military Demarcation Line,” U.S. General Vincent Brooks told reporters on Wednesday.
But he said that the risk is “a reasonable degree” and the move represents a good opportunity to reduce tensions.
About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, a legacy of the Korean War, which ended in 1953 in an armistice that left the North Korea technically still at war with South Korea and the U.S.-led United Nations command.
Besides serving as the commander of those troops, Brooks also commands U.N. forces, and in the case of war, would take command of South Korean troops as well.
Brooks said that his troops are finding “other ways” to maintain readiness in the absence of major military drills, which were cancelled or delayed by U.S. President Donald Trump as part of a deal with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.
“I received no order to become unready,” he said. “Nobody told me to stand down.”
When Trump announced the plan after his summit with Kim in Singapore in June, a spokeswoman for U.S. military forces in Korea said at the time they had not received any direction to cease joint military drills.
When asked on Wednesday if he had advance warning of Trump’s June announcement, Brooks said as a commander in the field he had no expectation that he would be briefed on the president’s plans.
“Orders come in many different ways,” he said. “So for a military commander it’s not a matter of debate, it’s a matter of implementation.”
Brooks did not elaborate on how his command had adjusted to the changes in military exercises.
He credited the military presence in South Korea with “successfully” setting the stage for this year’s diplomatic talks with North Korea, and said he supports maintaining pressure on North Korea to prevent it from “backing up” on diplomatic steps.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Michael Perry)