By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, July 22 (Yonhap) -- The U.S. push for greater "strategic flexibility" for its forces deployed around the world could increase the chances of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) being mobilized for missions beyond the Korean Peninsula, experts said Wednesday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that he wants to pursue more rotational force deployments into theaters as it give the U.S. "greater strategic flexibility in terms of responding to challenges around the globe."
The remarks came in response to a recent media report that the Pentagon has offered the White House options to reduce American troop levels in South Korea. Esper, however, said he has not issued an order to withdraw forces from the Korean Peninsula.
Currently, around 28,500 U.S. service members are stationed in South Korea.
"Such a troop adjustment does not mean any immediate reduction in troop levels here or their withdrawal," Park Chang-kwon, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, said. "The key would rather be possible changes in the missions and roles USFK would take."
"The new defense strategy, which has in fact resurfaced after more than a decade, is forecast to boost the possibility that the USFK will be more like rapid deployment troops taking global-scale missions rather than defending the host country as stationary ones," Park added.
Chances are that the U.S. will ask South Korea and other partner nations to focus more on combined operations and defense cooperation in the face of an assertive China, he said.
Park Won-gon, professor at Handong Global University, also said that the strategy for strategic flexibility, if realized, would either boost or cut the number of U.S. forces here, which could be less efficient at deterring potential provocative moves by North Korea.
"Close consultations are necessary between the two sides on USFK's future role and potential changes of the troop levels down the road," he said.
Others said the cycle of American troop rotations could shorten under the new strategy, though it would incur a huge cost.
"Noteworthy is that the sheer number of stationary troops has increasingly become less significant in the modern and future battlefield," said another expert, who asked not to be identified. "The troop presence in South Korea is crucial not only to deter North Korea but to keep China in check."
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