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Defense act restricts efforts to cut US troop numbers in South Korea

Troops wait for U.S. and South Korean leaders to arrive for lunch at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017.

MARCUS FICHTL/STARS AND STRIPES

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 14, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea – The 2019 defense policy bill signed by President Donald Trump restricts efforts to reduce U.S. troop numbers in South Korea, reflecting concerns that the administration may move to do so.

The $717 billion bill prevents the Pentagon from cutting the number of servicemembers deployed to the South below 22,000 unless the defense secretary has certified that it’s in the “national security interest” and that the secretary has “appropriately consulted” with regional allies.

Trump signed the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, which sets the parameters for appropriations committees to consider in allocating defense funds, on Monday.

North Korea’s nuclear program “poses a critical national security threat not only to the United States, but to the security and stability of the entire Indo-Pacific region,” the bill said.

“The presence of United States Forces on the Korean Peninsula should remain strong and enduring,” it added.

Trump has long indicated that he’d like to withdraw troops from South Korea to save money, although he insisted the issue would not be part of nuclear negotiations with the North.

“I want to get our soldiers out,” Trump said after his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“I want to bring our soldiers back home,” he told reporters in Singapore, adding that at the moment “that’s not part of the equation.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and other lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle criticized the idea, arguing it would play into the hands of North Korea and its ally China, which object to the U.S. presence.

The president also announced he was suspending joint war games with South Korea to facilitate diplomatic efforts aimed at persuading the North to give up its nuclear weapons.

The United States, which has been allied with the South since the two countries fought together in the 1950-53 Korean War, currently maintains some 28,500 servicemembers on the peninsula.

Trump expressed reservations about the restriction, among other similar measures, in a statement.

He cited “the longstanding understanding of the executive branch” that such provisions “encompass only actions for which such advance certification or notification is feasible and consistent with the president’s exclusive constitutional authorities as commander in chief and as the sole representative of the nation in foreign affairs.”

The policy bill also gained widespread attention for authorizing a 2.6 percent pay raise for servicemembers, the largest increase in nine years, as well as new purchases of aircraft, ships, submarines and weapons.

It takes effect on Oct. 1, which is the start of the next fiscal year.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

 

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