Congress agrees to no troop cuts

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Congress agrees to no troop cuts

The U.S. House and Senate agreed on a bill preventing the reduction of American troops in Korea to below 28,500 personnel, the current level stationed on the peninsula, stressing that their presence in the region benefits the national security of the United States.

The U.S. House and Senate Armed Services Committees in Washington on Monday agreed on a $738 billion joint defense budget bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the fiscal year 2020, which stipulates: “None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act may be used to reduce the total number of members of the Armed Forces serving on active duty who are deployed to South Korea below 28,500,” without approval by the secretary of defense.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper would have to certify that such a reduction of troops “is in the national security interest of the United States and will not significantly undermine the security of United States allies in the region,” and ensure that Washington “appropriately consulted with allies of the United States, including South Korea and Japan,” according to the bill.

The number is 6,500 personnel higher than the restriction set in the 2019 NDAA, which stipulates U.S. troop presence in Korea must not fall below 22,000.

The Pentagon rejected a Korean news report last month that the United States is considering a withdrawal of up to 4,000 U.S. troops from the peninsula.

However, U.S. President Donald Trump last week questioned the necessity of stationing American troops in Korea, saying it “can be debated” whether it is in U.S. national security interest to keep them on the peninsula.

Trump, speaking at a press briefing in London on Dec. 3 said that he “can go either way” and said if U.S. troops were to be kept in Korea, Seoul “should burden share more fairly.”

Seoul and Washington have been locked in tough negotiations to renew their bilateral Special Measures Agreement (SMA), set to expire at the end of the year, and the U.S. negotiators have been demanding Seoul to pay a steeper contribution to defense cost-sharing.

Washington is seen to be calling for Seoul to pay a fivefold increase of some $5 billion for the upkeep of U.S. forces in Korea, and Trump’s remarks suggested that a reduction or withdrawal of U.S. troops could be on the negotiation table.

U.S. lawmakers have acknowledged that the Trump administration’s exorbitant demands during SMA negotiations could bring about a wedge in the alliance.

The NDAA for 2020 addresses such concerns and emphasizes how “critical” U.S. allies and partners are to its own national security.

It requests that the defense secretary submit reports to congressional committees on the direct, indirect, and burden-sharing contributions of Japan and South Korea to support the U.S. forces to be submitted no later than March 1 next year and March 1, 2021.

This includes the contributions for labor costs, logistics, utilities and facilities. It also includes contributions to Pentagon military construction projects, including planning, design, environmental reviews, construction, construction management costs, rents on privately-owned land, facilities, labor, utilities and vicinity improvements.

It specifically requests the “methodology and accounting procedures used to measure and track” burden-sharing contributions made by South Korea and Japan.

The final NDAA conference summary Tuesday describes that the 2020 bill “supports America’s allies and partners by requiring new reports related to ally and partner nation contributions, specifically from NATO members and East Asian allies, including South Korea and Japan.”

It expresses that the sense of the U.S. Congress is that “the United States remains committed to its alliances with Japan and South Korea, which are essential to the peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

The U.S. Congress also sees that “diplomacy, economic sanctions and credible deterrence are essential to address North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program” and threat it poses to the region. It adds that “the United States, in concert with allies, should continue to deter North Korea through a credible defense and deterrence posture.”

The House and the Senate were expected to vote on the NDAA this week and the bill must be signed by President Trump before it is enacted into law.

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