When it comes to the future of the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, it may not be only the future of nuclear weapons on the table: It could also be 28,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea as United States Forces Korea (USFK).
The presence of these U.S. troops in South Korea has long been a point of contention for North Korea, which argues they threaten its national security. In South Korea, too, U.S. troops are a politically divisive issue. Though many conservative South Koreans value their presence, there are many who would like to see them go.
What has really changed now, however, is there is a U.S. leader who has also repeatedly suggested that, in general, foreign nations that host U.S. troops should pay far more for their upkeep, or they should be withdrawn.
With the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump likely to take place in just a few weeks, here is a rundown of the current positions on U.S. troops in South Korea for the stakeholders.
Historically, North Korea has demanded U.S. troops be withdrawn from South Korea. It has claimed annual drills the U.S. military conducts with the South Korean military were a pretext for invasion — an understandable position, as the drills have included mock “decapitation” attacks against North Korean leaders.
Some critics argue North Korea simply wants U.S. troops to leave the peninsula so Pyongyang can finally use its military against South Korea, either blackmailing it into concessions or even attempting to forcefully reunify the two Koreas. However, it is hard to imagine the North Korean army, even with its superior manpower, could easily overpower South Korea — or that the United States would not intervene, regardless of whether USFK had withdrawn.
What is noteworthy right now is that Kim appears to have dropped his demand for U.S. forces to leave South Korea ahead of his summit with Trump. There was no hint of it in the joint declaration Kim signed with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in; indeed, Moon later told reporters North Korea was no longer insisting on U.S. troop withdrawal.
North Korea “is not making demands that the U.S. cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of the U.S. forces in Korea,” Moon said, according to the JoongAng Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper. Instead, Moon said, North Korea was simply seeking an “end to the hostile policy” and a “guarantee of its security” in return for abandoning its nuclear and missile program.
It is not clear why Kim would have dropped this demand, and many are skeptical. However, some analysts have suggested Kim may know it is simply unrealistic — or even that North Korea may view a U.S. presence on the peninsula as a useful counterweight to other regional forces, such as China.
The South Korean government said clearly this week the presence of U.S. troops in the country was a matter for Seoul and Washington, not Pyongyang.
“U.S. troops stationed in South Korea are an issue regarding the alliance between South Korea and the United States. It has nothing to do with signing peace treaties,” Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for the presidential Blue House, cited Moon as saying Wednesday.
Most polls suggest the majority of South Koreans support the current numbers of U.S. troops in the country. A survey conducted for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2015 found 61 percent of South Koreans thought U.S. troop numbers in the broader Asia-Pacific region should be kept as is.
However, the U.S. presence in South Korea has long been politically divisive in the country, with some on the far left pushing for troop withdrawal — a position that has been aggravated in the past by high-profile crimes and accidents involving U.S. service members, and the perception that Washington was undermining the chances for peace with North Korea.
Since entering office, Moon has been a moderate on U.S.-South Korea relations, but there has been some doubt sown by his allies. In a widely shared Foreign Affairs article published this week, Blue House foreign policy adviser Moon Chung-in wrote it would “be difficult to justify [U.S. troops’] continuing presence in South Korea” if a peace treaty were signed.
The adviser Moon later clarified his comments to say he had not meant he himself supported withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea.
U.S. political and military leaders have generally been steadfast in their support of USFK.
However, Trump has taken a skeptical view of U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. leader has repeatedly suggested wealthy host countries all around the world should do more to support the troops stationed there. Before he was elected, Trump told reporters he would be willing to withdraw troops from South Korea and Japan if they did not increase their contributions.
“I would not do so happily, but I would be willing to do it,” Trump told the New York Times in March 2016. “We cannot afford to be losing vast amounts of billions of dollars on all of this. We just can’t do it anymore.”
Trump’s comments later received favorable commentary in North Korean state media. However, he appeared to disregard the considerable costs borne by South Korean taxpayers for U.S. bases.
Since entering office, the U.S. president has largely avoided talk of withdrawing troops. However, NBC News reported this week Trump had to be dissuaded from withdrawing all U.S. troops in South Korea in February. On Thursday, the New York Times reported Trump had ordered the Pentagon to look at options for reducing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea.
The White House pushed back strongly against this suggestion Friday, with national security adviser John Bolton calling it “utter nonsense” and stating Trump “has not asked the Pentagon to provide options for reducing American forces stationed in South Korea.”
Later in the day, Trump said he was not planning to put troop numbers “on the table” during talks with North Korea and added, “we haven’t been asked to.” However, he then added: “At some point into the future, I would like to save the money.”