Both USFK and SK Ministry of National Defense dispute figures that show troop levels far above the agreed upon 28,500
By Kim Kyu-won and Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporters
USFK troop levels, which have remained consistently in the 26,000 to 29,000 range since 2006, are being raised by around 9,000, according to a 2012 report by the US Department of Defense.
Questions are now being raised about the substantial jump, which puts the amount of troops well above the 28,500 level agreed upon by South Korea and the US.
The 2005-2012 edition of the department’s annual “Base Structure Report,” which was published on Mar. 21, showed a total of 37,354 US troops stationed in South Korea as of Sept. 30, 2011. This was 8,854 more than the 28,500 agreed upon at a 2008 summit between the two countries’ heads of state. It was also 11,049 more than in 2009, when USFK troop levels were at their lowest.
Since 2004, when there were 37,997 USFK troops stationed in South Korea, the number had been dropping steadily as the US government implemented a plan to reposition its overseas forces. From 32,422 in 2005, the number fell to 29,477 in 2006, 28,356 in 2007, 27,968 in 2008, and 26,305 in 2009.
Originally, USFK had planned to reduce its South Korean presence from around 38,000 in 2004 to 25,000 by 2008. But in April 2008 – a few months after President Lee Myung-bak took office – an agreement was reached to keep the level at around 28,500. With a few years, however, the number was rising sharply again, reaching 31,839 in 2010 and 37,354 in 2011.
Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, the main USFK base in South Korea, saw a particularly large rise, from 3,536 in 2009 to 10,997 – an increase of 7,441 troops. Yongsan Garrison also saw a rise by 2,399 troops, from 3,820 to 6,219. Together, they accounted for the bulk of the increase.
The 9,000-troop increase given in the report may represent a portion of the units that were pulled out of Iraq, where as of early 2009, the US had 145,000 troops stationed. But that number plummeted after President Barack Obama implemented a plan to pull out in March 2009. By August 2010, the number was down to 50,000, representing a decrease of 95,000 troops. By December 2011, it was just three thousand, with 142,000 troops out of the country. Analysts speculate that a portion of the forces pulled out of Iraq may have been stationed in South Korea for strategic or technical reasons.
Another possible analysis is that large rises in the US military presence in Japan and Germany over the same period may also be connected to the pullout from Iraq. Between 2009 and 2011, US troops in Japan more than doubled from 41,512 to 87,182, a rise of 45,670. The US presence in Germany also rose by 7,371 from 53,106 troops to 60,477. Together, the three countries saw an increase of some 61,895 troops – just under half the 142,000 that were pulled out of Iraq over the same years.
This also suggests that the increase indicated in the report may be temporary.
“We have no way of knowing whether the 9,000-troop increase in 2011 will be maintained,” said Kim Jong-dae, editor-in-chief of the defense journal Defense 21+. “I expect that the figure of 28,500 agreed upon by South Korea and the US may fluctuate in the years ahead as the US pushes its ‘strategic flexibility’ approach.”
Some observers have expressed concern about the long-term burden of having such a large US military presence in South Korea.
Yu Yeong-jae, who heads the US military issues team for the civic group Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea, said the increase has a negative impact on numerous military issues between the two countries, including the Pyeongtaek base relocation plans, the scheduled reversion of wartime operational command to South Korea, and talks over the two countries’ share of defense expenses.
“If there has been any addition to the USFK presence, it needs to be withdrawn, and safeguards need to be put in place to control the entry of USFK troops and equipment into South Korea,” Yu said.
USFK is saying the report is not an accurate representation of the facts. Spokesman Kim Young-kyu said the number of troops may be increased or reduced slightly as duties are alternated, but added, “Nine thousand troops is practically a division. That’s unimaginable. Even the US Pacific Command expressed doubts.”
USFK and the South Korean Ministry of National Defense both contended that the figures were off. Kim put the official number of USFK troops at 28,500, adding, “The figures in this report are different from what we actually have for the USFK, so we’ve asked the Defense Department for confirmation.”
Lim Kwan-bin, who heads the ministry’s defense policy office, said that USFK always provides notification of any personnel changes.
“We haven’t received any kind of notice like that from USFK,” he added.