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Debate emerges over future role of US forces in South Korea

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean Minister of Defence Song Young-moo visit the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea during a visit to the Joint Security Area in South Korea, Oct. 27, 2017. (DoD photo by US Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

After the bloody war with North Korea ended in a truce in 1953, the United States stationed large-scale troops in South Korea to defend the infant democracy against aggression from its nothern neighbor.

Though the level of troops has been gone down over time, the US forces in South Korea have played a crucial role in maintaining the armistice of the Korean War and deterring provocations from North Korea. Currently, about 28,000 US troops are stationed in South Korea.

Now, the future of the USFK is being questioned amid speculation that the issue could be raised during the US-North Korea summit on June 12, prompting debate over what role the troops would play in the event of a diplomatic breakthrough between Washington and Pyongyang.

If the issue were to be raised during the upcoming summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the two leaders would discuss changes to the number and nature of the troops, not whether to withdraw them entirely, Seoul-based analysts said.

“There is no reason to think that the USFK issue will not be brought up at the summit,” said Shin Bum-cheol, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “But it won’t be about US military presence here. It would be more about how they can be changed in terms of roles and number.”

The controversy arose after Trump indicated Friday that he had talked about the issue of the USFK during his meeting with Kim Yong-chol, the highest-ranking North Korea official to visit the US in 18 years.

Asked by reporters whether Kim had asked about the troop level in South Korea, Trump said they had “talked about almost everything.” Then the president appeared to change the subject by adding that they also discussed economic sanctions on North Korea.

While US Defense Secretary Jim Matttis made clear that the issue of the USFK will not be on the negotiation table with North Korea, speculation is rampant that other issues related to the USFK could still be raised in the context of the US giving a security guarantee to North Korea.

“Kim would definitely ask Trump about how the US would guarantee North Korea’s security in return for denuclearization,” said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the National Korea Diplomatic Academy.

“In that context, the issue of US-South Korea combined exercise and US deployment of strategic assets could be discussed. North Korea would demand adjustment of the combined drills and asset deployment.”

Experts noted that even if North Korea surrendered its nuclear weapons, the US would not agree to pull out US troops from South Korea, as Washington believes their presence here is crucial to maintaining military supremacy amid growing assertiveness from China.

Instead, Washington may consider changing the role originally played by the USFK — from those aimed at defending against North Korea’s military aggression to a balancing role against China in East Asia.

Last week, the US Pacific Command was renamed Indo-Pacific Command, in what analysts view as a symbolic effort to improve ties with India and check China’s influence.

“The USFK constitutes a key component of US strategy in the East Asia,” said Kim Yeol-su, head of security strategy at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs. “If there were a change to the nature of the USFK, it would be aimed at containing the rise of China.”

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© 2018 the Asia News Network (Hamburg, Germany)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.