Absence of U.S. commitment to troop levels not aimed at ‘twisting Korea’s arm’: Knapper

SEOUL, The absence of a phrase committing the United States to maintaining troop levels in South Korea in a recent joint statement should not be taken as a threat or negotiating leverage aimed at pressuring Seoul with a possible troop cut, a U.S. diplomat said Wednesday.
Marc Knapper, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan, made the remark during a virtual seminar, referring to the joint communique issued after annual talks between Defense Minister Suh Wook and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper earlier this month.
The statement did not include the usual U.S. commitment to keeping American troop presence in South Korea at the current 28,500 level, raising speculation the U.S. may be considering a troop drawdown or trying to use the threat of a troop cut as leverage in defense cost sharing negotiations with Seoul.
“It was not a message directly aimed at Korea but rather was meant to reflect a broader, worldwide assessment that’s under way by the Pentagon, of how we deploy our forces,” he said during the virtual seminar hosted by the Sejong Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
“By no means was it meant to be a threat or a way to twist Korea’s arm by its exclusion,” he said.
Some observers raised concern that the dropped sentence could also mean that Washington is using that as a bargaining chip for the stalled defense cost sharing negotiations to have Seoul accede to its demand for a drastic increase in the payment.
The talks aimed at determining Seoul’s share for the upkeep of the U.S. Forces Korea on its soil remain deadlocked as the U.S. has asked South Korea to shoulder about a 50 percent increase to US$1.3 billion a year. Korea has offered a 13 percent raise at the maximum.
Knapper said the talks to renew a defense cost-sharing deal, known as the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), are continuing, and the two sides are working to reach a deal.
“She hasn’t been able to meet in person for sometime due to the (COVID-19) circumstances, but discussions continue. We remain frustrated that we don’t have an agreement, but we are hopeful that we can get something done,” he said, referring to Donna Welton, the newly appointed U.S. official for SMA talks.
Ko Yun-ju, director general of North American affairs at South Korea’s foreign ministry who also spoke in the session, also highlighted that the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s security remains firm.
“There are a lot of public statements by Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Esper that U.S. commitment to defending the Korean Peninsula is very strong, unwavering,” he said. “I again reiterate that there are no discussions about a reduction of USFK forces.”

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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