A major player was missing from last week’s summit between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — U.S. Forces Korea.
The future of nearly 30,000 American troops stationed in South Korea is a key question hovering over the peace process as Kim and President Donald Trump prepare for their upcoming nuclear talks.
North Korea considers them an existential threat and has demanded their withdrawal in past negotiations, although Kim reportedly didn’t raise the issue in his talks with Moon.
Trump suggested withdrawal himself after saying on the campaign trail that Seoul should shoulder more of the burden for its own defense.
White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine general, talked the president out of ordering a total withdrawal from the peninsula in a “heated exchange” before the Feb. 9-25 Winter Olympics began in South Korea, NBC News reported Monday, citing two anonymous officials.
The South Korean president rejected the idea on Wednesday after one of his senior advisers wrote in a column that it would be difficult to justify the presence of American forces on the peninsula if the sides succeed in putting a formal end to the 1950-53 war.
“U.S. Forces Korea is a matter regarding the U.S.-South Korean alliance. It has nothing to do with signing peace treaties,” spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom quoted Moon as saying.
The issue also was absent amid the images of Moon and Kim embracing and walking together as they declared “a new era of peace” on Friday, pledging to work toward a peace treaty and committing to the “complete denuclearization” of the divided peninsula.
The final declaration made no mention of U.S. forces or the joint war games held each year in South Korea that usually infuriate the North, which considers them a rehearsal for an invasion.
Instead it set the stage for Trump to take on the thornier issues as he presses Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons in the first-ever U.S.-North Korean summit, which is expected to be held in coming weeks.
“The past and present show that Pyongyang will aim for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior visiting fellow with the Seoul-based Korean Peninsula Future Forum.
It might make “tactical adjustments in its position and demands, but that doesn’t mean they’ve scrapped their ultimate goal of withdrawal,” she said.
The 34-year-old North Korean leader, who rose to power in 2011 after his father died of a heart attack, has dialed back the anti-U.S. rhetoric since agreeing to join the Olympics and inter-Korean talks after months of heightened tensions that raised fears of a nuclear war.
The North test-fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test last year in its rapid march toward developing a nuclear weapon that could target the U.S. mainland.
Experts are divided over whether his sudden about-face is due to the increasing effect of international economic sanctions or a confidence that his arsenal is strong enough to provide sufficient leverage in negotiations.
Kim has announced a testing moratorium and promised to close the nuclear testing facility this month under the supervision of U.S. and South Korean experts and journalists.
South Korean envoys who met with him earlier this year in Pyongyang also said he understood that Seoul and Washington must continue “routine joint military exercises,” a major departure from the past, although it’s unclear if he was referring to all drills or just the springtime Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises.
Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank, pointed out that the allies have kept this year’s exercises low-key, without the highly publicized aircraft carriers and supersonic bombers that are usually deployed.
“The North may be able to tolerate the presence of the USFK as long as the U.S. doesn’t mobilize strategic assets,” Cheong said.
But neither side has laid its cards on the table and they likely face sharp differences over the definition of denuclearization, which the North has long maintained should include the removal of the U.S. threat on its doorstep.
“Peace depends on both sides’ willingness to abide by terms,” said Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general and defense expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
“U.S. forces presence provides both deterrence and a military capability, which is important if North Korea decides to ignore a treaty,” he said.
The American military presence in South Korea — considered a “tripwire” against North Korean aggression — has been the cornerstone of the alliance between the two countries since the Korean War ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
It also serves as a counterbalance to China’s influence in the region.
Beijing has stepped up economic pressure on Pyongyang in line with Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. But it also has strongly protested the deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system in the South, and it remains the North’s main benefactor.
In his first trip abroad since taking power, Kim traveled by train to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in March as diplomatic efforts gained momentum.
“China’s military expansion is going on at full speed and there will be a vacuum of power if USFK withdraws from South Korea,” Cheong said in a telephone interview. “China’s stance is that USFK shouldn’t remain on the peninsula after reunification, but that’s an issue we need to decide.”
Former President Jimmy Carter tried to remove the troops after he took office in 1977 in a bid to trim the defense budget and pressure South Korea’s then-dictatorship over human rights, but he backed down after hitting a wall of opposition from his top aides.
Past U.S. administrations had more success in trimming the force. Richard Nixon withdrew about a third of 60,000 servicemembers in 1971 despite strong opposition from the South. George W. Bush shifted many of the troops to Iraq.
The U.S. and South Korean militaries insist their alliance is stronger than ever, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis suggested the troop presence would be discussed.
“That’s part of the issues that we’ll be discussing in the negotiations with our allies first and, of course, with North Korea,” he told reporters Friday when asked if U.S. troops would be needed on the peninsula if a peace treaty is reached.
“So I think for right now, we just have to go along with the process, have the negotiations and not try to make preconditions or presumptions about how it’s going to go,” he added. “The diplomats are going to have to go to work now.”
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