U.S. troops may not be on the table during Tuesday’s summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but they are looming in the background.
Trump has said the future of some 28,500 American servicemembers based in South Korea will not be a bargaining chip in nuclear talks with the North.
The former business tycoon has, however, hinted it may be part of cost-sharing talks with Seoul. “At some point into the future, I would like to save the money,” he said last month.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to answer a question on the subject Monday, saying only that the United States was prepared to offer unprecedented “security assurances” to the regime in return for denuclearization.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was not in Singapore for the summit, said recently that the Americans are “not going anywhere” and “it’s not even a subject of the discussions.”
Maybe not now, but the U.S. presence on the divided peninsula has been a major sore point for the North Koreans since the Americans sided with the South in the 1950-53 war.
The fighting ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty. A formal end to the war has been floated as one of the possible summit outcomes.
Some South Korean officials and others contend the U.S. troop presence would no longer be required if the North abandons its nuclear weapons and peace is achieved.
Opponents argue that the Americans would still be needed to protect the South against a possible attack from the North, which maintains a massive arsenal of conventional weapons and more than a million soldiers on the other side of the heavily fortified border.
U.S. forces haven’t changed their posture in the meantime, continuing to train and maintain a constant state of readiness.
“It could change the way the theater operates in the future, but who knows,” said Maj. Dannielle Carroll-Wakem of the 501st Military Intelligence Brigade at Camp Humphreys. “I think everyone is hopeful for a positive outcome.”
The truth may lie somewhere in the middle. Here’s a look at possible scenarios for the future of the some 28,500 U.S. servicemembers in South Korea.
North Korea has historically demanded that the United States withdraw its troops from the peninsula and end its so-called nuclear umbrella that protects the South and Japan. The communist state has cited what it calls a hostile U.S. policy as justification for its nuclear weapons development.
It also frequently criticizes annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which the allies insist are defensive in nature. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in April that the North has dropped the withdrawal demand as a condition for giving up its nuclear arsenal.
But Pyongyang has continued to criticize the allied military exercises. Another argument is that the North Korean leader is holding the issue in reserve for future negotiations. “He could choose, at this point, not to raise the question of a withdrawal explicitly, but instead opt for language that he can argue allows him to bring it up in the future,” Robert Carlin, a former CIA analyst and US State Department official, wrote recently on the website 38 North.
The New York Times reported last month that Trump has asked the Pentagon to look into reducing the presence of American troops in South Korea. The newspaper, which cited several people briefed on the deliberation, didn’t specify whether the president was looking for a full or partial withdrawal. The administration denied the report, with National Security Adviser John Bolton calling it “utter nonsense.”
Efforts to remove U.S. troops aren’t unprecedented. Jimmy Carter tried to withdraw them after taking office in 1977 to save money and pressure South Korea’s then-dictatorship over human rights. But he backed off the plan amid opposition from top aides and a CIA report showing that North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs were more dangerous than previously thought.
Richard Nixon withdrew about a third of 60,000 servicemembers in 1971 despite strong opposition from Seoul. George W. Bush shifted many of the troops to Iraq after the 2003 invasion. His father, George H. W. Bush removed tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in the early 1990s.
U.S. Forces Korea is in the process of moving most troops and their families from an Army garrison in Seoul to a newly expanded base called Camp Humphreys as part of a long-delayed relocation south of the capital.
While Mattis insisted the troops aren’t going anywhere, the military could decide to cut the number of families allowed to come with them to South Korea. Officials also could scale back joint military drills, with the United States deploying fewer troops from other countries and declining to send supersonic bombers and aircraft carriers to the region.
The next test will be fall exercises known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian. Seoul and Washington have agreed to go forward with the drills but to keep them low-profile to maintain the mood for peace, officials have said. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow with the conservative think tank Defense Priorities, argues that the United States could afford to remove troops from South Korea.
It would still have tens of thousands of service members and massive air power in Japan and Guam. He said the military could pull back incrementally, possibly starting with the removal of the combat brigade while leaving logistical and air forces. “It could be something phased out over time,” said Davis, a retired Army officer who served in South Korea. “If they get an actual peace treaty, then the need for a military physical deterrent on the ground is reduced.”
South Koreans have long had a love-hate relationship with the U.S. military presence.
Most support the decades-old alliance with the United States, particularly after tensions rose with the North last year. But the relationship has been rocky in the past amid waves of anti-Americanism.
South Korean peace activists frequently wave banners at rallies calling for an end to military exercises and the removal of a controversial advanced U.S. missile defense system known as THAAD. Moon has said he wants the Americans to stay regardless of a peace treaty.
Some analysts also say the North Korean leader may actually prefer to keep U.S. troops on the peninsula as a buffer against Chinese influence. Yun Sun, the co-director of the East Asia program at the U.S.-based Stimson Center, said a North Korean acquiescence to U.S. troops would anger Beijing. “The Chinese do not want the Americans to stay,” she said.
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