As the clock ticks toward the US-North Korea summit in Singapore on June 12, speculation is rising over what issues US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will discuss. The fate of 28,000 American troops stationed in South Korea might be one of them.
There have been conflicting messages from top US officials. Trump and diplomats like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seem not to have ruled out the possibility of Trump and Kim discussing the issue. In contrast, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other military leaders tend to reject the idea of seeking a change to the status of the US forces in South Korea.
The latest hint from Trump came after he had a one-on-one meeting with Kim’s special envoy at the White House last week. Asked by reporters whether he had discussed the US forces in Korea in his meeting with Kim Yong-chol, Trump said they “talked about almost everything.”
Then Pompeo said that such an issue is “not a topic to be shared with the public at the current stage.” It was the strongest indication yet that the US military presence in South Korea was being discussed by the two sides.
Media reports fueled the speculation. The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump and the North Korean envoy discussed not only sanctions but also a potential reduction of American troops in South Korea. The New York Times reported last month that Trump had asked the Pentagon to look into reducing American troops in South Korea. US officials including national security adviser John Bolton denied the report, but that failed to curb speculation.
The issue of US forces in South Korea comes up persistently because it is a matter that may be connected to a security guarantee North Korea is demanding from the US in return for denuclearization.
There is a high possibility that Trump and Kim may declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War that ceased with a truce. It could be the first step toward terminating hostilities and providing US assurance about the North’s security.
In fact, after meeting the North’s envoy, Trump made it clear that the Singapore summit could bring an end to the war. “We talked about ending the war. We’re going to discuss it prior to the (Singapore) meeting,” Trump said, adding that that is something that could come out of the meeting.
If Trump and Kim make the declaration in Singapore or agree to do so shortly -- perhaps along with South Korean President Moon Jae-in -- it could become the first step for a US security guarantee to the North, which should eventually include the replacement of the armistice agreement with a peace treaty and signing of a nonaggression pact.
If the US and North Korea follow these steps one by one, the presence of US troops in South Korea may well come up naturally.
South Korea should also be ready for such discussions in the future, but a declaration of the end of the Korean War itself -- a symbolic event at best -- should not be an occasion to discuss or make a decision that could affect the status of the US forces in South Korea.
Fortunately, the US military is cautious about any premature talk of reducing or withdrawing American troops. Defense Secretary James Mattis is most vocal on the matter.
During and after a security forum in Singapore, Mattis said that the issue of the US troops would not be on the negotiating table at the June 12 summit and that “nor should it be.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “If five years from now, 10 years from now, it could be up for review, that would be between a democracy called the Republic of Korea and a democracy called the United States of America.”
Mattis must be telling the truth, but the problem is that we don’t know what exactly is on the mind of Trump, who has often aligned the US forces in Korea with his “America First” policy.
The North is apparently using the issue of US troops in South Korea as a bargaining chip, as seen by its continuing denunciations of joint South Korea-US military exercises. And Trump is bent on making the Singapore summit a big political show for him. There are ample reasons to worry about a possible bad decision.