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Deputy Defense Undersecretary Richard Lawless warns that the U.S. will have to make cuts that could “begin to damage the capability of the alliance” if South Korea doesn’t increase its contibution to maintaining U.S. forces on the peninsula.
Deputy Defense Undersecretary Richard Lawless warns that the U.S. will have to make cuts that could “begin to damage the capability of the alliance” if South Korea doesn’t increase its contibution to maintaining U.S. forces on the peninsula. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

ARLINGTON, Va. — The United States will have to cut its military capabilities in South Korea if the South Korean government doesn’t come up with more money to support the U.S. military presence in that country, a top Defense official said Monday.

The Defense Department wants to split the cost of the U.S. military in South Korea about 50-50 with the South Korean government, said Richard Lawless, deputy undersecretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Right now, the South Korean government pays about 38 percent of the costs associated with the U.S. military presence in that country, Lawless told reporters Monday.

“We don’t feel that this is an equitable arrangement,” he said, noting that Japan bears more than 70 percent of the cost of maintaining a U.S. military presence in its country.

The South Korean government has argued that as U.S. troop strength in that country shrinks to about 25,000, South Korea should pay less to support the U.S. military presence there.

But Lawless warned that if the South Korean government does not pony up more money, the Defense Department will have to make “real cuts” in its military presence in South Korea, but he did not yet know what those cuts may be.

“When we cut through the fat and we cut through the muscle and we cut into the bone, then we have to make decisions and we have to decide if we’re going to cut capabilities, we have to decide if we’re going to cut personnel, we have to make really hard decisions that begin to damage the capability of the alliance. That’s the cusp of the decision. That’s the decision point that we’re at,” he said.

U.S. and South Korean officials hope to come to an agreement by December on how much South Korea should pay toward U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula, Lawless said.

Also Monday, Lawless said U.S. and South Korean officials still do not agree when South Korea should assume wartime control over its armed forces.

Under the current arrangement between the two countries, Gen. B.B. Bell, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, currently has command over roughly 500,000 South Korean troops and about 29,000 U.S. troops in wartime.

The United States wants South Korea to assume wartime control over its own forces in 2009, but South Korea believes it should take on the responsibility in 2012, Lawless said.

South Korea is conducting a reform of its military due to be complete in 2020, he explained.

“The Republic of Korea has its own idea as to when, in that longer-term process, they can best assume the responsibilities of this transition,” Lawless said.

“It’s simply a matter of discussion and a matter of compromise, I think, between the two sides as to what would be the optimum structure for receiving — again — responsibility for the conventional defense,” Lawless said.

The two sides hope to reach an agreement on this issue by Oct. 20, he said.

“I am very hopeful that we will be able to reach agreement, but I won’t speculate on what the process would be if we don’t,” Lawless said.

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