Pentagon chief Mattis: U.S will maintain current troops in South Korea

SEOUL, June 27 (UPI) — The current level of U.S. troops in South Korea will be maintained, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Thursday at a meeting with Seoul Defense Minister Song Young-moo.

Mattis reiterated the U.S. military support for South Korea while calling U.S. forces stationed in the country a symbol of the strong alliance, Chosun Ilbo reported. The United States has some 28,000 troops in South Korea.

The defense chiefs discussed follow-up measures to their recent decision to indefinitely suspend major joint military drills.

“The recent decision to suspend the Freedom Guardian exercise creates an increased opportunity for our diplomats to negotiate, increasing the prospects for a peaceful solution on the Korean peninsula,” Mattis was quoted as saying in a Yonhap report.

Song said: “The timing is right for us to talk at this critical juncture when preparations are underway for a complete denuclearization and the lasting peace of the Korean peninsula.”

They also vowed to strengthen cooperation in implementing steps for the planned wartime operational control transfer, according to the defense ministry.

For many years, South Korea has called for retrieval of wartime operational control for its independent defense capabilities. A U.S. four-star general holds the command for both South Korean and U.S. military forces in wartime.

Before arriving in Seoul, Mattis met Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe during his three-day visit to China, according to CNN. He arrived in Seoul on Thursday for a talk with the South Korean defense minister and will go to Japan on Friday.

Last week, U.S. and South Korean officials decided to halt joint a marine exercise program, in addition to the Ulchi Freedom Guardian military drill, the biggest annual drill taking place in South Korea every August.

The decision came after U.S. President Donald Trump said he would freeze “war games” with South Korea while negotiations for denuclearization with North Korea continue.

At the June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump said it would be “inappropriate to hold war games” when denuclearization negotiations are underway with the North. He also called the joint military drills “expensive” and “very provocative” in a news conference after his one-on-one meeting with Kim.