The fate of U.S. troops in South Korea won’t be up for negotiation during President Donald Trump’s June 12 summit with North Korea, the defense secretary said Saturday.
The comments by Jim Mattis came hours after Trump confirmed he would hold nuclear talks with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, reversing last month’s announcement that he was canceling the summit.
Mattis said “any discussion about the number of U.S. troops” would be between Washington and Seoul, and the issue was “separate and distinct from the negotiations that are going on with (North Korea).”
“That issue will not come up in the discussions with (North Korea) and as you all recognize, those troops are there as a recognition of a security challenge,” he said in response to a question at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, an annual international security forum.
North Korea has linked the presence of some 28,500 U.S. servicemembers in the South and military exercises frequently conducted between the militaries of the two allies to what it calls a hostile U.S. policy against it.
Trump also said last month that the troop presence would not be on the table, although he added that he would like to “save the money” in the future, suggested he may reconsider the issue as part of bilateral negotiations over cost-sharing with the South.
Mattis vowed to “hold the line” with South Korea as an ally and stressed the U.S. goal was the “complete, verifiable and irreversible … denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” according to a Defense Department transcript.
He otherwise made little mention of the upcoming summit, saying the military was supporting the diplomats who have the lead.
Mattis said the issue of U.S. troops may come up in discussions with South Korea “if the diplomats can do their work — if we can reduce the threat.”
“But that issue is not on the table here in Singapore on the 12th nor should it be,” he added.
Some South Korean officials and politicians also have suggested that U.S. troops would no longer be needed if peace with the North is achieved.
Past U.S. administrations have had mixed success in changing the force structure on the divided peninsula, which remains technically at war since the 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
Former President Jimmy Carter tried to withdraw them after taking office in 1977 but failed after hitting a wall of opposition from his top aides.
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 in the years after the U.S. invaded that nation in 2003. His father, George H. W. Bush, removed tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in the early 1990s.
© 2018 the Stars and Stripes
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.