By Joyce Lee
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.
Washington broke off defence cost talks with South Korea this week after demanding Seoul raise its annual contribution to $5 billion (£4 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 U.S. President Donald Trump has said the U.S. military presence in and around South Korea was “$5 billion worth of protection”.
“I understand that the U.S. 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 U.S. military brigade numbers about 3,000 to 4,000 troops. There are about 28,500 U.S. 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.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he was not aware of any plans to withdraw 4,000 U.S. 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 U.S. government”.
Under U.S. law, the United States’ troop presence in South Korea must not fall below 22,000 unless the Secretary of Defense justifies a further reduction to Congress.
Chosun said the potential reduction of a brigade from U.S. troops stationed in South Korea had already been discussed with the top brass of U.S. forces in South Korea.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun said on Wednesday he believed the United States should continue to station troops in South Korea, when asked if he would continue to advocate for the presence of U.S. 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,” 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 U.S. troops from South Korea should not be brought up, as the South Korea-U.S. alliance also helps the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Hanoi, David Brunnstrom and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; Editing by Jack Kim and Stephen Coates)