(ATTN: ADDS minister's more remarks, defense ministry's statement in paras 7-10, 14-15)
By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, Oct. 26 (Yonhap) -- The United States did not commit to maintaining its troop level in South Korea in a recent joint statement between their defense ministers because it is adjusting its overseas troop presence in a flexible manner, the defense ministry said Monday.
The two countries issued a joint communique after annual talks between Defense Minister Suh Wook and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper earlier this month, but the statement did not include a usual U.S. commitment to keep American troops at the current level.
That raised speculation the U.S. may be considering troop cuts.
"Instead of keeping a certain level of American troops at a particular country, it is pushing for a policy flexibly adjusting troop levels in consideration of security situations," the defense ministry said in an answer to a question from Rep. Kang Dae-sik of the main opposition People Power Party about why the troop commitment was missing.
Still, Suh said the U.S. has pledged an "unshakable commitment" to the security of South Korea at the Security Consultative Meeting, and there were no discussions on the possible reduction of the USFK force level.
Asked to comment on the omission of the expression on keeping USFK troop levels, Suh said the Pentagon appears to have received guidelines to have a more flexible stance on the level of its troops dispatched overseas.
"The issue is bound by the U.S.' National Defense Authorization Act, so that no discussions (about the possible reduction in the number of USFK troops) took place during the meeting," Suh noted.
The NDAA disallows the reduction of the number of American troops in South Korea below the current level unless the U.S. defense secretary certifies that reduction is in the U.S. national security interest.
The defense ministry also issued a separate statement on Monday and stressed that "there have not been any discussions on the USFK troop level between the two sides up until now."
"A senior U.S. official who attended the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) also confirmed that the omission of the sentence about the maintenance of the current level of American troops in South Korea does not mean any reduction," the ministry said.
Talk of the troop reduction came as the two sides have failed to narrow differences over their cost sharing for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong USFK under the bilateral deal, called the Special Measures Agreement.
On Oct. 5, USFK informed South Korean employees of a furlough that could occur in April next year in case the two countries fail to reach an agreement on their defense cost-sharing deal.
More than 4,000 South Korean workers already experienced unpaid leave from April to June this year before the U.S. accepted South Korea's proposal to fund the labor costs for all USFK Korean workers through the end of the year.
The U.S. has been pushing for greater "strategic flexibility" for its forces deployed around the world.
Esper said earlier that he wants to pursue more rotational force deployments into theaters as it gives the U.S. greater strategic flexibility in terms of responding to challenges around the globe, though he stressed that he has not issued an order to withdraw forces from the Korean Peninsula.
S. Koreans feel pinch of rising housing costs amid economic downturn
China's push for FTA with S. Korea, Japan appears aimed at checking U.S. influence
Blinken likely to seek stronger alliance, multilateral approach toward N. Korea: experts
Energy policy, optics of watchdog autonomy at stake in politically sensitive reactor audit
'Wall of buses' stirs up debate over how far police can go to stop rallies amid pandemic