Troop reduction, base moves on table in S. Korea
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — After a stunning, sometimes-frenetic week of announcements and counterproposals, the United States and South Korea are focusing on future negotiations to resolve two major issues: the relocation of U.S. bases and the timing of a 12,500-troop drawdown.
Reports of a troop-reduction proposal by the United States had floated around for months. But on Monday, when a proposal to cut the U.S. presence by a third by the end of next year was made public, things heated up.
Two days of previously scheduled base relocation meetings went nowhere. Both sides agreed that the issues would have to be addressed together, but that a resolution needed to be reached faster than what has occurred so far.
While in Seoul, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless — who led the U.S. negotiating team in the Future of the Alliance talks — granted one interview, to the South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
In that interview, Lawless said both the timing and size of the drawdown could be negotiated over the coming weeks.
“We are prepared to listen to whatever opinion Korea has,” he said. “We haven’t explained anything concrete yet, nor have we explained how we would proceed or which units would be reduced.”
But, he said, the reduction negotiations can’t drag on the way the base reorganization talks have.
“For this to become a political issue,” Lawless said, referring to negotiations over the amount of land needed for new U.S. military hubs, “leaves us frustrated.
“If this rational proposal is not accepted at the military level and instead develops into a political one, finding compromise might prove difficult.”
South Korean officials also announced Friday they were taking major steps to deliver on President Roh Moo-hyun’s promise to build up the country’s own defense capability over the next decade. That move takes on greater importance with the U.S. drawdown plans.
The Ministry of National Defense said Friday it was seeking a 14 percent budget hike next year to fund such programs as an airborne-reconnaissance system and newer versions of the Patriot missile defense system.
Other funds would go toward new equipment like the F-15K and KF-16 fighter jets; the K1A1 armored vehicle, navy vessels and command and control improvements, the MND said in a statement.
U.S. officials have repeatedly touted a program to invest $11 billion over the next four years in military improvements.
Currently, South Korea spends $13.9 billion a year in defense funds; at $417 billion this year, the United States spends by far the most in the world.