In a briefing near Manila on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper refused to speculate on whether Washington would consider reducing the number of U.S. troops stationed in the Korean peninsula.
His remarks are in stark contrast to last week when he insisted U.S. troops will remain at the current level.
He reiterated that South Korea is a wealthy country that can and should pay more to support and maintain U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula.
Washington is said to have requested a five-fold increase of Seoul's contribution up from the current 870-million dollars.
"Look, as I said publicly the other day, South Korea is a wealthy country. They can and should contribute more. And beyond that I will leave it to the State Department to work out the particulars."
A local expert said Esper's remarks can be seen as a means to gain the upper hand in defense cost-sharing negotiations.
In reality though due to legal technicalities, an actual reduction in U.S. troops in the peninsula seems limited for now.
But if the allies aren't able to come up with a deal in the long run, a reduction can be a possibility.
This would ultimately undermine efforts to denuclearize North Korea.
"If the Seoul-Washington alliance weakens as well as the utilization of military assets and surveillance, the situation will turn optimal for Pyeongyang, as it'll bolster the North's clandestine operations to develop nuclear and missile weapons."
The expert added an option that cannot be overlooked is that the U.S. may cut down the number of U.S. troops who are assigned to the U.S. Forces Korea on a rotational basis of nine months that affects up to 65-hundred troops.
In other words, the number of American troops could be lowered to the 22-thousand range from the current 28,500.
Esper did mention the allies are prepared to deter any threat from North Korea.
It's seen as a way to pressure Pyeongyang, which was pessimistic in resuming denuclearization talks with the U.S. after Esper announced a postponement of the wintertime combined military air drill with South Korea to support diplomatic efforts.
Kim Ji-yeon, Arirang News.