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Who knows?

Dec 11,2019
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In an interview with CBS in February, U.S. President Donald Trump says he does not have a plan to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea. But “who knows?” he added. [CBS YOUTUBE]
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Nam Jeong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Will Washington adjust its defense commitment in South Korea if it is not happy with the terms of the new Special Measures Agreement (SME) detailing the sharing of costs for the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea (USFK)?

Senior officials in Washington maintain that the negotiations for defense burden sharing and withdrawal of USFK are entirely different issues. The Pentagon fumed over a Korean media report which claimed that the U.S. Department of Defense was considering pulling out a brigade of up to 4,000 soldiers if Seoul refuses Washington’s demand for a fivefold raise in the contribution. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman who was traveling with Defense Secretary Mark Esper immediately called for retraction of the report which has “absolutely no truth,” and reiterated a U.S. “ironclad” commitment to South Korea and its people.

Other senior U.S. officials echoed the comments. Last week, John Rood, under secretary of defense for policy, denied the thought of phasing out U.S. forces from South Korea. Rear Adm. Jeffery Anderson, deputy director for political-military affairs (Asia) for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also offered assurances that such an idea had never been discussed within the Defense Department. Seoul backed Washington’s standing. Jeong Eun-bo, chief negotiator for the SMA talks, stressed that the United States has never raised the option of a pullout during burden-sharing talks.

American diplomats like to stress that the U.S. administration does not lie. However, are we really safe to believe their words? Unfortunately, their track record suggests otherwise.

When U.S. President Donald Trump first floated the idea of pulling troops out of Syria early last year, all of his aides vehemently denied it. His then-Defense Secretary James Mattis offered assurances in September that the United States would stay in Syria as long as it is sure that no terrorists are left. National Security Adviser John Bolton joined the chorus. He contended that American forces would not pull out of Syria as long as there were Iranian armed forces near the border. But after two months, Trump announced a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria.

Many criticize Trump for acting on whims. In fact, he has been unwaveringly consistent. He kept his promise of building a wall along the border with Mexico. He may eventually get his way about the USFK. He has repeatedly said that keeping USFK does little to help U.S. interests. Despite denials by his aides, he reiterated that South Korea must pay more if it wants to keep American soldiers there. If Trump wins his second term, a reduction or withdrawal may be inevitable.

American public sentiment has also been changing. According to a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in September, the approval rating of the USFK came down to 69 percent from 74 percent a year ago. Moreover, the Moon Jae-in administration responds overly casually to the discussion. The Park Chung Hee regime went berserk when U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter vowed to pull American soldiers out of South Korea in 1976. Disclosed diplomatic records showed that the Korean Central Intelligence Agency drew up a lengthy report on the alarming standoff with North Korea at the time and delivered it to the Carter camp. The Korean ambassador to Japan rushed to meet one of his political advisers when he came to Tokyo. Seoul went all-out to dissuade the Carter administration from putting his promise into action.

The Moon administration, however, is laid-back. Moon Chung-in, special advisor to the president on unification, security and foreign affairs said last month that the Korea-U.S. alliance and its deterrence against North Korea won’t be affected even if the number of American troops is reduced by 5,000 to 6,000. Why would American soldiers wish to stay in such circumstances? It is better to work on the Plan B if we have no other choice.