US troops in South Korea a tricky issue under Trump administration

By Li Jiacheng Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/8 20:18:40

Moon Chung-in, a special advisor to South Korean President Moon Jae-in on foreign affairs and national security, published in Foreign Affairs an article headlined "A Real Path to Peace on the Korean Peninsula: The Progress and Promise of the Moon-Kim Summit" in late April. In the article he argued that if a peace treaty is signed it will be difficult to justify the continuing presence of US forces in South Korea. "But there will be strong conservative opposition to the reduction and withdrawal of US forces, posing a major political dilemma for Moon [Jae-in]," Moon Chung-in wrote.

Actually, Moon Chung-in didn't directly advocate withdrawing US forces. Instead, he said the legality of US forces in South Korea would be weakened after the peace treaty. However, the article triggered a debate over whether US forces in South Korea should stay, and the Moon Jae-in government responded immediately to dispel confusion and speculation. 

Responding to questions about Moon Chung-in's column, Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for the South's presidential Blue House, citing President Moon Jae-in, said "US troops stationed in South Korea are an issue regarding the alliance between South Korea and the US. It has nothing to do with signing peace treaties."

On May 3, The New York Times reported "President Trump has ordered the Pentagon to prepare options for drawing down American troops in South Korea, just weeks before he holds a landmark meeting with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un." The report upset the South Korean government. The Moon administration quickly denied the report, hoping to dispel misgivings about removing US forces from South Korea. The Blue House said National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong had a telephone call with a senior official at the White House and he was told "The New York Times report was not true at all."

In order to calm the controversy he had provoked with his article, Moon Chung-in asserted his support for the US troop presence in South Korea in an interview on May 3. "Even after a peace treaty is signed, I think it is advisable for US troops to remain stationed in South Korea for strategic stability in Northeast Asia and for political stability inside South Korea," he said.

There are voices in the US Department of Defense worrying that the reduction of US forces in South Korea would weaken the US-South Korea alliance and trigger Japan's worries. South Korea also feels anxious about the removal of US forces, as the US still has South Korea's wartime operational control. South Korean forces haven't built up their own independent operation and combat system and they worry about losing combat ability if there is no more US operational and arms support. The withdrawal of US troops in South Korea would break the current military balance on the peninsula, weaken South Korea's advantage in the unification process and make the US-South Korea alliance an empty title - this is strategically unbearable for South Korea.

Although the New York Times report was denied, the issue of US forces in South Korea still attracts attention. Before Trump was elected president, he proposed adjusting US forces in South Korea and in Japan. In his opinion, Japan and South Korea are not paying a fair share to host those US forces. The unpredictable president might promise to Kim Jong-un to reduce US forces in South Korea at the upcoming summit. The US and South Korea must also discuss the costs of maintaining those US forces after 2019.

The author is a research fellow at Research Center for the Economics and Politics of Transitional Countries, Liaoning


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