Tokyo opposes withdrawal of U.S. troops

Japan opposes any withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula in exchange for North Korea’s denuclearization, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterates.

Background

The Korean peninsula was divided post World War II in 1945. In 1950, North Korea, supported by China and Russia, invaded South Korea. The United Nations and US forces intervened on behalf of the South and the invading army was driven out during the Korean War. The two nations signed an armistice in 1953, however, there has been no peace treaty and they are technically still at war. South Korea currently houses over 25,000 American soldiers as a part of the United States Forces in Korea (USFK).

Relations between Japan and North Korea are strained. There are no formal relations established between the two nations. Before Korea was divided into two nations, it was occupied by Japan in 1910. In the final days of World War II, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and advanced towards Korea. The US fears that the Soviets would take over all of Korea requested it to cease its military actions. Thus, Seoul and the southern part of Korea came to be occupied by US forces.  By 1948, Korea had been divided into two factions. North Korea has harboured animosity towards Japan for the role it played in the invasion of the region before World War II.

The North Korean nuclear program has been a source of concern for the US and the international community for decades. In July 2017, North Korea successfully test launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). In August 2017, North Korea fired several short-range missiles into the sea. It has also conducted its sixth nuclear test; an event that triggered a 6.3 magnitude earthquake.

Analysis

Japan opposes any withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula in exchange for North Korea’s denuclearization, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in an interview with the Financial Times published Monday.

“It is my understanding that there is no such idea in the minds of the U.S. side nor in the mind of President (Donald) Trump,” said PM Abe.

He made the comments as Washington and Pyongyang are considering a second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, following their historic meeting in June.

Slightly less than 30,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, a significant portion of the country’s military presence in Asia. If the contingent were to be downsized, it would put a large burden on the 47,000 U.S. troops currently in Japan as well as Japan’s Self-Defence Forces.

On track to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister after winning his Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership election last month, Abe is looking to use his final three years to achieve his long-sought goal of amending the pacifist Constitution to clarify the legality of the SDF.

Counterpoint

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has previously denied that U.S. troops stationed in the country would withdraw following the possible signing of a peace treaty to end the Korean War, saying that they should stay even if a deal is reached.

“U.S. Forces Korea is a matter for the South Korea-U.S. alliance,” the president said according to spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported. “It has nothing to do with signing a peace treaty.”

Seoul wants the troops to stay because U.S. forces in the South play the role of mediator in times of military tensions between neighbouring powers such as China and Japan. The North — which had long demanded that U.S. troops be withdrawn, citing their presence as an invasion threat and a justification for its nuclear weapons program — has said that it would not ask for their withdrawal as a precondition for abandoning its nuclear weapons

Assessment

Our assessment is that PM Abe’s statement highlights the credibility of North Korea’s threat to Tokyo. Pyongyang has often resented Japan for its occupation and acts of crimes committed during World War 2, and Japan is wary of any ‘retaliations’. We believe that the US will not withdraw troops from South Korea, regardless of any future agreements. We also feel that Seoul will be careful of giving away too much in the negotiations, therefore it may also not agree with the troop withdrawal.