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US denies report it's considering troop cuts in South Korea

U.S. and Korean troops set up a support line at Rodriguez Live Fire Complex, South Korea, on March 21, 2015, during the annual Foal Eagle 2015 exercises.

STEVEN HITCHCOCK/U.S. ARMY

By GLEN CAREY AND JIHYE LEE | Bloomberg | Published: November 21, 2019

The U.S. dismissed a report that it was considering a withdrawal of thousands of its troops to gain leverage with South Korea as the Trump administration seeks to have it pay five times more to host American service members.

The South Korea daily Chosun Ilbo reported Thursday that the U.S. was considering withdrawing one of its brigades if ongoing defense cost talks with Seoul don't go as it wants. Jonathan Hoffman, chief Pentagon spokesman, later said in a statement that "there is absolutely no truth" to the report, which the paper attributed to a diplomatic source in Washington familiar with the talks.

“Secretary Esper was in South Korea this past week where he repeatedly reiterated our ironclad commitment to the ROK and its people. News stories such as this expose the dangerous and irresponsible flaws of single anonymous source reporting. We are demanding the Chosun Ilbo immediately retract their story,” Hoffman's statement said.

Earlier Thursday, the defense chief had told reporters that the U.S. wasn't using troop levels as a bargaining chip in funding talks with host countries.

"We aren't threatening allies over this. This is a negotiation," he said.

Last week, questions were raised about the stability of one of America's most important military alliances when U.S. negotiators walked out of a meeting in Seoul on cost-sharing. South Korea balked at a Trump administration demand for a five-fold increase in funding.

The current cost-sharing agreement reached earlier this year expires at the end of 2019. South Korea's Defense Ministry said that despite the latest acrimony, the U.S. has vowed in its latest meeting that its forces would stay.

President Donald Trump has demanded South Korea contribute about $5 billion for hosting U.S. troops, well above the current one-year deal where Seoul pays about $1 billion. The price tag originated with the White House, according to people familiar with the matter, and administration officials justify it by saying it reflects the costs South Korea would incur if it takes operational control of combined U.S.-South Korean forces in the case of a conflict.

The U.S. has about 28,500 service members in South Korea.

Trump has repeatedly expressed frustration with the open-ended troop deployment, saying after his first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year that he would "like to bring them back home, but that's not part of the equation right now." At the same time, he has accepted a long-standing Kim demand and suspended major joint military exercises that the U.S. and South Korea have relied on to maintain readiness.
 

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