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‘No significant change to U.S. troops here’

Jan. 29, 2012 - 20:00 By Korea Herald
WASHINGTON (Yonhap News) ― The head of the U.S. Pacific Command said Friday that there will be no “significant” change in the scale and role of American troops in South Korea despite the Pentagon’s plan to cut budgets and slash the number of ground troops.

Adm. Robert Willard, however, left open the possibility for some adjustment, based on annual consultations between the allies, given regional security conditions.

The agreement to station roughly 30,000 soldiers in Korea is generally to face North Korea but also “with an understanding that those troops are there with the region in mind,” he told reporters at a press conference organized by the Washington Foreign Press Center.

“I don’t anticipate that there will be changes that are significant associated with this strategic rollout,” he said. “But the dialogue between the United States and Seoul ― that has always been ongoing.”

The yearly discussions are to ensure that the U.S. has “the number of troops there and the conditions under which they’re being employed correct,” he added.

On Thursday, the U.S. Defense Department announced a plan to reduce its troops by 100,000 by 2017 in a bid to chip away at the country’s budget deficit.

Regarding North Korea, the commander in charge of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region said his military is closely monitoring whether its power transition is going smoothly after the abrupt death of Kim Jong-il in December.

The North declared Kim’s third son, Jong-un, as its next leader. He is reportedly in his late 20s.

“This young man that has assumed power, Kim Jong-un, is relatively untested and has a lot to face in terms of governance of North Korea, with all of the challenges attendant to it, and what has been a rather coercive approach to the region and the world by his father,” the admiral said.

He said North Korea has entered into its winter training cycle and a U.S. plan to stage large-scale joint military drills starting late next month is also in accordance with an annual schedule.

“So right now, I think the world is watching North Korea and with anticipation as they begin to reveal whether the strategies of Kim Jong-il will continue or not,” he said.

On a broader role of the U.S. military in Asia, the commander said it wants to expand military presence in Southeast Asia but does not seek permanent bases in the region.

He was responding to reports that the U.S. and the Philippines will step up military cooperation, which media view as apparently intended to counter China. China has long been locked in territorial disputes with Southeast Asian nations.

“We would welcome discussions with the Philippines along those lines, but there’s no aspiration for bases in Southeast Asia,” he said.