Nov. 20 (UPI) -- Speculation is growing in South Korea that the Trump administration is not ruling out the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula following remarks from U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
Esper told reporters in the Philippines on Tuesday that he refuses to speculate whether the United States would consider reducing troops in South Korea.
"I'm not going to prognosticate or speculate on what we may or may not do," Esper said, according to Yonhap. "The State Department has the lead in these discussions, and I'm sure they are in capable hands. We just take this one step at a time."
Esper's open-ended statement is not good news, said South Korean analyst Cho Sung-ryul of the Institute for National Security Strategy, Hankyoreh reported Wednesday.
Cho told the newspaper the statement is "shaking South Korean public opinion by inciting a crisis in the U.S.-Korea alliance." Opposition in Washington to U.S. troop withdrawal from Korea could be a hurdle for the Trump administration, however, he added.
Esper's statement came the same day the U.S. State Department and Seoul diplomats abruptly ended negotiations on military cost sharing without an agreement.
The U.S. decision to end the meeting early has raised uneasiness among Seoul's politicians, including conservatives of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party.
Local television network MBC reported Wednesday the party's leader, former Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, launched a hunger strike outside the presidential Blue House.
Hwang is protesting President Moon Jae-in's handling of GSOMIA, a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo. Moon's administration has said it intends to not renew the agreement unless Japan reverses trade penalties against South Korea.
Hwang's colleague Na Kyung-won left for Washington on Wednesday as worries grow in Seoul the alliance is at risk.
"I'm frustrated," Na said at Incheon international airport. "This is unfortunate."
LKP politicians have opposed the government's handling of GSOMIA and its pro-engagement North Korea policies. Some of its members have also spoken out against U.S. demands that South Korea pay nearly $5 billion annually for keeping 28,500 troops on the peninsula and for costs beyond Korea's borders.