Not withdrawing US troops from South Korea: Trump

US President Donald Trump has no plans to pull out US troops from South Korea, amid speculation that he could offer a drawdown to North Korea in exchange for the progress on denuclearization.

Background

The United States has maintained Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine personnel in South Korea in support of its commitment under the U.S.-R.O.K (Republic of Korea) Mutual Defense Treaty to help defend against external aggression. US and South Korea formed the Combined Forces Command (CFC) in 1978, based in Seoul with a US general at the helm.

The United States and the R.O.K. coordinate closely on the North Korean nuclear issue and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. With 23,468 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in South Korea, U.S. forces in South Korea are a major presence in the region and a key manifestation of the U.S. government's reset  towards the Asia-Pacific.

Analysis

President Donald Trump said in an interview broadcast that he has “no plans” to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea as he prepares for another summit with North Korea’s leader.

Trump said “Yeah. I mean we haven't talked about anything else. “Maybe someday. I mean, who knows. But, you know, it's very expensive to keep troops there. You do know that,” he added. “We have 40,000 troops in South Korea. It's very expensive, but I have no plans. I've never even discussed removing them.” Less that 40,000 service members are stationed in South Korea although the military says that number fluctuates due to rotation and other factors

Trump’s statement comes as Washington and Seoul are at loggerheads over a new cost-sharing agreement for the U.S. military, with the Trump administration demanding that South Korea’s government contribute significantly more. The current agreement — which requires Seoul to pay Washington about $830 million a year to host U.S. forces, or about half of the overall cost expired on Dec. 31. The two allies have until April 15 to reach a new agreement. . On the rationale for drawing down US troops in the region, Trump previously cited what he called "a very big trade deficit" with the South, and claimed "our allies care about themselves”. "We lost money on trade, and we lose money on the military," Trump said in March. The Trump administration is demanding that it pay for virtually the entire cost of the military presence.

North Korea views the 23,500 US troops stationed in South Korea as a provocative reminder of the US-South Korea military partnership, even though the countries have repeatedly assured the North that it is a defensive posture. The North has historically railed against the  US's presence and threatened to retaliate against the annual joint military exercises between the US and the South. 

Special adviser Moon Chung said in an opinion column that it would be difficult to justify the continuing presence of US forces in South Korea if a peace treaty is signed between North Korea and South Korea. Panmunjom Declaration of April 2018 agreed to end the truce of the Korean War and sign a peace agreement.

Kelly E. Magsamen, a policy official at the Pentagon during the Obama administration, said, “U.S. presence in South Korea is a sacrosanct part of our alliance.” Mattis visited Japan and South Korea at the end of June and stressed that the United States would keep its forces stationed in South Korea even after the combined military drills were cancelled

Trump reiterated that plans for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have been set. Trump said he sees a "very good chance" that they could arrive at a deal. "He has a chance to have North Korea be a tremendous economic behemoth. He can't do that with nuclear weapons," he said.

Assessment

Our assessment is that the presence of US troops revolves around the twin imperatives of deterrence and reassurance. It can be noted that American troops in South Korea are there to halt an attack from the North & to protect allies like Japan from Russian & Chinese influence. 

It is likely that Korean liberals along with China would like for US to withdraw its forces, for the sake of appeasing North Korea. Concurrently, South Korea is a peninsula and prefers for the US forces to protect sea lanes & prevent the rise of another hegemony at the cost of bearing the expenditure for their military presence.