The withdrawal of some 28,000 US troops stationed in South Korea may be on the table in future negotiations between the US and North Korea, US Defense Secretary James Mattis said on the heels of a landmark inter-Korean summit.
Asked if US forces will remain in South Korea provided Seoul and Pyongyang replace their 1953 truce with a formal peace treaty, Mattis indicated that the continued US military presence in South Korea may become a part of the bargain with the North.
“Well, that’s part of the issues that we’ll be discussing in the negotiations with our allies first and, of course, with North Korea,” he said, speaking alongside Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak at the Pentagon on Friday.
Mattis then appeared to take a step back, saying that “for now, we have to go along with the process… and not try to make preconditions or presumptions about how it’s going to go.”
Responding to the question of whether he trusts North Korea’s assertions of a new-found aim for peace and denuclearization, Mattis noted that “we are optimistic right now that there’s opportunity that we have never enjoyed since 1950 [the beginning of the Korean war],” but added that he doesn’t have “a crystal ball” to foretell where the current rapprochement leads.
The statement comes in the wake of Friday’s historic meeting between North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, where they signed a declaration reiterating their commitment to the complete denuclearization of the whole peninsula and expressed hope that they can seal a peace accord by the end of the year through multi-party negotiations involving Washington and, possibly, Beijing.
Pyongyang previously indicated that it would only be ready to disarm if its safety is guaranteed and saber-rattling by the US, which has held numerous drills with South Korea at the North Korean border over the years, stops.
While it is the first official acknowledgment by Washington that its large garrison stationed in South Korea may become a concession to Pyongyang, US President Donald Trump reportedly touted the idea during a fundraiser in March. At the time, Trump linked the prospect of the US troops withdrawal to economic issues.
“We have a very big trade deficit with them [South Korea], and we protect them. We lose money on trade, and we lose money on the military. We have right now 32,000 soldiers on the border between North and South Korea. Let’s see what happens,” he said, The Washington Post reported, citing an audio recording of the meeting.
The US president, who is expected to hold his own summit with the North Korean leader in May or June, offered cautious praise of the talks, noting on Twitter that “good things are happening, but only time will tell.”