WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has ordered the Pentagon to prepare options for drawing down U.S. troops in South Korea, just weeks before he holds a landmark meeting with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, according to several people briefed on the deliberations.
Reduced troop levels are not intended to be a bargaining chip in Trump's talks with Kim about his weapons program, these officials said. But they acknowledged that a peace treaty between the two Koreas could diminish the need for the 23,500 soldiers stationed on the peninsula.
Trump has been determined to withdraw troops from South Korea, arguing that the United States is not adequately compensated for the cost of maintaining them, that the troops are mainly protecting Japan and that decades of U.S. military presence had not prevented the North from becoming a nuclear threat.
His latest push coincides with tense negotiations with South Korea over how to share the cost of the military force. Under an agreement that expires at the end of 2018, South Korea pays about half the cost of the upkeep of the soldiers — more than $800 million a year. The Trump administration is demanding that it pay for virtually the entire cost of the military presence.
The directive has rattled officials at the Pentagon and other agencies, who worry that any reduction could weaken the U.S. alliance with South Korea and raise fears in neighboring Japan at the very moment that the United States is embarking on a risky nuclear negotiation with the North.
Officials declined to say whether Trump was seeking options for a full or partial reduction of troops, although a full withdrawal was unlikely. They emphasized that rethinking the size and configuration of the U.S. force was overdue, regardless of the sudden flowering of diplomacy with North Korea.
But Trump's meeting with Kim injects an unpredictable new element. His enthusiasm for the encounter — and the prospect of ending a nearly 70-year-old military conflict between the two Koreas — has raised concerns that he may offer troop cuts in return for concessions by Kim.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis added to those concerns last Friday when he suggested that the future of the U.S. military presence might be on the table.
For Trump, withdrawing troops would have multiple benefits, said Victor Cha, a Korea scholar at Georgetown University. It would appeal to his political base, save the United States money and give him a valuable chit in his negotiation with Kim.
"But from the perspective of the U.S.-South Korea alliance," Cha said, "it would represent a major retrenchment."
Kelly Magsamen, a top Asia policy official at the Pentagon during the Obama administration, said, "U.S. presence in South Korea is a sacrosanct part of our alliance."
The South Korean government reiterated this week that the troops were still needed and would not be pulled out as a result of a peace treaty with North Korea. But even close allies of President Moon Jae-in have raised doubts about the rationale for a long-term U.S. presence.
"What will happen to U.S. forces in South Korea if a peace treaty is signed?" Moon Chung-in, an adviser to the president, said in a widely read article published this week. "It will be difficult to justify their continuing presence."
Kim recently declared, through South Korean officials, that he would drop the North's long-standing insistence that U.S. troops leave the peninsula. Some experts argue that watching U.S. soldiers depart is far less important to him than winning relief from economic sanctions.
For years, the U.S. presence has been more important as a symbol of deterrence than as a fighting force. At their current levels, the troop numbers are down by about a third from the level in the 1990s.
As the South Koreans have become a premier fighting force — with their own special operations forces, the ability to oppose the North's artillery along the Demilitarized Zone and now their own cyberforces — they have become less dependent on the United States. Most U.S. troops have pulled back to well south of Seoul.
Past efforts stymied
Trump is not the first president to push for troop reductions. Jimmy Carter ran for office on a promise to withdraw all ground combat forces, in part to protest South Korea's autocratic government at the time. Resistance from the military and Congress stymied his efforts. In 2004, George W. Bush's defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, shifted nearly 10,000 troops from South Korea to the Iraq War.
During the Obama administration, former officials said, the Pentagon was always reluctant to consider troop reductions or the suspension of joint military exercises when the White House talked about potential pathways to ridding North Korea of its weapons.
"It would be foolish to give any of that away early in discussions, given the long North Korean track record of breaking agreements," said Christine Wormuth, a former top Defense Department policy official in the Obama administration.
Trump, however, has long argued that America's military presence is not an asset but a liability — not just in South Korea but in Japan as well. As both countries became wealthy, he said, they should have taken on more of the burden for their defense. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he even suggested that the two nations acquire their own nuclear weapons so they did not have to depend on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Grudgingly, Trump admitted that the troops had kept the peace on the peninsula. But he said they had not prevented the North from acquiring nuclear weapons or menacing its neighbors.
"We've got our soldiers sitting there watching missiles go up," he said in an interview with The New York Times in July 2016, adding, "We've had them there for a long time, and now they're practically obsolete, in all fairness."
Over the past year, officials said, Trump has continued to question the need for troops with aides like his former national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and his deputy, Maj. Gen. Ricky Waddell.
Before the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, when tensions between the United States and North Korea were high, the president broached the idea of withdrawing the dependents of troops from South Korea for security reasons. His chief of staff, John Kelly, talked him out of the plan, a former official said, because it would have stoked fears of an imminent military strike against the North.
During that period, tensions flared between the White House and the Pentagon because Trump's aides believed that the military was dragging its feet in providing the president with options for a limited strike on North Korea.
Now, officials said, the situation was reversed: The Pentagon worries that Trump will push too swiftly to demilitarize.