House bill restricts troop reductionThe U.S. House of Representatives passed a defense authorization bill on Thursday that restricts any reduction of American troops in South Korea.
The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, which allocates $716 billion to defense for fiscal year 2019, passed the House by a vote of 359-54. Upon Senate approval, it will be sent to U.S. President Donald Trump to sign into law.
The bill notes that the 28,500 American troops currently stationed in South Korea are a demonstration of the United States’ commitment to the bilateral alliance. Their “significant removal” is “a non-negotiable item as it relates to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea, the bill reads under a section describing the Sense of Senate on U.S. forces in Korea.
In a conference report accompanying the legislation, Congress also prohibits the funds from being used to reduce the troop figure below 22,000 without certification from the secretary of defense. “Such a reduction is in the national security interest of the United States and will not significantly undermine the security of United States allies in the region,” the report reads.
The secretary will also need to certify that he has “appropriately consulted with allies of the United States, including the Republic of Korea and Japan, regarding such a reduction.”
The restriction comes as Trump has repeatedly indicated a willingness to eventually pull out American forces from South Korea. Critics say such a move would play into the hands of China and North Korea, which both wish to see U.S. troops removed from near their borders.
On Thursday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called out North Korea for its persecution of Christians and other human rights abuses. Pence has been an outspoken critic of Pyongyang even as the two countries seek to resolve their standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
“While we all hope that relations between the United States and North Korea continue to improve - and we certainly hope that the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic weapons program can be eliminated - there is no escaping the plain fact that North Korea’s leadership has exacted unparalleled privation and cruelty upon its people for decades,” Pence said at the inaugural Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the U.S. State Department.