US Military Eyes Changes to Troop Presence in South Korea

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In this March 25, 2015, file photo, U.S. Army soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team and South Korean soldiers take their position during a demonstration of the combined arms live-fire exercise as a part of the annual joint military exercise Foal Eagle between South Korea and the United States at the Rodriquez Multi-Purpose Range Complex in Pocheon, north of Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
In this March 25, 2015, file photo, U.S. Army soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team and South Korean soldiers take their position during a demonstration of the combined arms live-fire exercise as a part of the annual joint military exercise Foal Eagle between South Korea and the United States at the Rodriquez Multi-Purpose Range Complex in Pocheon, north of Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

The U.S. has no immediate plans for troop withdrawals from South Korea, but all commands have been directed to rely more on rotational forces, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday.

"I've issued no orders to withdraw forces from Korea," he said, "but we will continue to look at adjustments at every command we have in every theater to make sure we are optimizing our forces."

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Esper said the goal is to rely more on rotational rather than fixed deployments to give the U.S. "greater strategic flexibility" in responding to global challenges from China and Russia.

He did not directly address recent reports, first from The Wall Street Journal, that the Pentagon has drawn up options for reducing the current total of 28,500 U.S. troops on the peninsula.

The reports of possible withdrawals rattled the Seoul government, coming as they did after President Donald Trump's June announcement of his intention to withdraw 9,500 of the 34,500 U.S. troops now stationed in Germany.

Esper spoke from the Pentagon in a webinar hosted by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London on security issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

In a Pentagon briefing later Tuesday, Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Defense Department spokesman, confirmed that the DoD is taking an overall look at "whether we are properly supporting the missions we've been given" by the White House and Congress in South Korea and elsewhere.

"We'll have recommendations we may make in the future," he said on the positioning of forces.

The U.S.-South Korea alliance has also come under strain in the dispute over how much Seoul should contribute to maintain the U.S. troop presence. South Korea now pays about $900 million annually, but the Trump administration has demanded a major increase.

In an April 20 White House news conference, Trump said, "They've offered us a certain amount of money, and I've rejected it. We have to be treated equitably and fairly, and so that's where it is right now. And what's going to happen, I can't tell you."

In his earlier remarks in the webinar, Esper focused mainly on what he called a "catalog of bad behavior" by China but added that he plans to visit that nation later this year.

Esper said that the U.S. will continue to sell arms to Taiwan and send warships through the Taiwan Straits as a warning against increasing threats from Beijing to attack should Taiwan move to declare full independence from the mainland.

In a May 29 speech in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, Li Zuocheng, a member of the Central Military Commission, said China's forces would "take all necessary steps to resolutely smash any separatist plots or actions."

Esper also noted that China's People's Liberation Army has significantly increased missile forces on the mainland side of the Taiwan Straits.

China has "hundreds, if not over a thousand, missiles aimed at Taiwan, and we've seen [President Xi Jinping] and his party really take this to a new level," he said. "So we remain committed to regional peace and security. We will live up to our commitments to Taiwan, which is all in the interest of a secure and stable region."

In the South China Sea, China is "regularly disrespecting the rights of other nations" with its territorial claims and military buildup on reefs and artificial islands, actions that have put the intentions of the Chinese Communist Party "on full display for all to see," Esper said.

The U.S. will continue to oppose China's "maritime empire" in the South China Sea with more Freedom of Navigation Operations and closer cooperation with allies, he added.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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