U.S. to keep troop levels the same in South Korea

By ASHLEY ROWLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 22, 2008

SEOUL — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Friday that the United States will keep its current level of 28,500 troops in South Korea, extending an agreement the presidents of the two countries made six months ago to pause a drawdown of U.S. troops on the peninsula.

Gates spoke to reporters Friday during a press briefing in Washington after the annual Security Consultative Meeting with South Korea’s minister of defense, Lee Sang-hee.

"Today, the United States reaffirmed its commitments to the Republic of Korea, including the extension of its nuclear umbrella," Gates said, adding that he had told Lee that morning that the U.S. would maintain its troop levels.

The U.S. agreed in April to temporarily halt the drawdown in its troop levels, which were scheduled to drop to a post-Korean War low of 25,000 by the end of the year.

The U.S. troop presence in South Korea reached a high of 326,863 in June 1953, about a month before an armistice was signed ending Korean War combat. The U.S. kept between 50,000 and 60,000 troops in South Korea during the 1950s and 1960s. That number had dropped to 38,500 by 2004, when the U.S. and South Korea agreed to the drawdown.

A U.S. Forces Korea spokesman said in May that details of the plan would be discussed at a future meeting of the U.S. secretary of defense and South Korea’s Minister of National Defense. The two ministers met in June in Seoul before a change-of-command ceremony for incoming USFK commander Gen. Walter Sharp.

Gates also said Friday that the two ministers did not discuss possible sales of the Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle, by the U.S. to South Korea, but the two ministers had a "very candid conversation" about sharing the costs of the U.S. military presence there. He did not elaborate on that conversation.