South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivered a denial Wednesday 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.”
Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met for a landmark summit Friday at the truce village of Panmunjom on the South side, where the two agreed to work toward a “peace regime” this year that would formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.
The U.S. stations 28,500 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the conflict, which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. Any decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the South would have wide-ranging effects, including on Japan’s security calculus, experts have said.
The presidential Blue House was responding to questions about an opinion article written by South Korean presidential adviser and academic Moon Chung-in that was published Monday.
“What will happen to U.S. forces in South Korea if a peace treaty is signed? It will be difficult to justify their continuing presence in South Korea after its adoption,” the former Yonsei University professor said in an article published in the U.S. magazine Foreign Affairs.
Seoul wants the troops to stay because U.S. forces in the South play the role of mediator in times of military tensions between neighboring powers such as China and Japan, another presidential official was quoted as saying on condition of anonymity.
Presidential adviser Moon was asked not to create confusion about the president’s stance, Blue House spokesman Kim said.
The North — which had long demanded that U.S. troops be withdrawn, citing their presence as an invasion threat and a justification for its nuclear weapons program — has said that it would not ask for their withdrawal as a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, Moon said last month. North Korea’s Kim did not bring up the issue during his summit with Moon last week, according to the Blue House.
Moon’s remarks Wednesday also come on the heels of a report Monday that White House chief of staff John Kelly persuaded U.S. President Donald Trump not to order the withdrawal of all American troops from the Korean Peninsula ahead of the February Winter Olympics in South Korea. That account came just weeks ahead of Trump’s planned summit with Kim.
Kelly blasted the NBC News report as “BS,” but U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said last Friday that the issue of keeping troops on the peninsula would be discussed with not only allies, but also North Korea — a prospect unthinkable just months ago.
Trump is due to meet Kim in “three or four weeks,” the U.S. president said Saturday, and it is unclear if the troops issue will come up in their talks.
Trump said Tuesday that the White House was “setting up meetings right now” and that a final decision on the date and location will be announced “over the next couple of days.”
Speculation about the location has centered on Singapore and Mongolia in recent days, although CNN reported Tuesday that Moon had convinced Kim told hold the summit at the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.
Citing an official with deep knowledge of North Korea’s thinking on the matter, the report said there is a “strong possibility” the summit will be held at the DMZ, with some events possibly scheduled on the northern side of the military demarcation line separating the two countries.
Trump himself has spoken of holding the meeting at the site, and media reports have characterized him as enamored with the images that came out of the inter-Korean summit.
The former reality TV star has voiced support for the idea, saying Monday: “There’s something I like about it, because you’re there, if things work out, there’s a great celebration to be had on the site, not in a third party country.”
Also Wednesday, media reports said that three Americans detained in the North may have been moved ahead of a possible release to coincide with the Kim-Trump summit.
The U.S. has been demanding the North free Kim Hak-song, Kim Dong-chul and Kim Sang-duk, who is also known as Tony Kim, and reports have said the two sides were close to reaching a deal on their release.
“They are staying in a hotel on the outskirts of Pyongyang,” Choi Sung-ryong, a South Korean activist with contacts in the North was quoted by Agency France-Presse as saying.
The three detainees are being kept separately, Choi said, but were “going on tours, receiving medical treatment and eating good food.”
The three men’s release was discussed when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang last month and met with Kim, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Trump had also stressed that their return remained a priority and that his administration was “fighting very diligently to get the three Americans back.”