June 13, 2018 12:59
U.S. President Donald Trump gave South Korean a shock on Tuesday with throwaway promises to end joint "war games" and by expressing hopes of pulling U.S. troops out altogether.
"I want to get our soldiers out," Trump told reporters in Singapore. "I want to bring our soldiers back home. We have, right now, 32,000 soldiers in South Korea, and I'd like to be able to bring them back home. But that's not part of the equation right now. At some point, I hope it will be, but not right now."
He also promised to end massive joint annual military exercises. "We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money, unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should," he said.
There had been fears among traditionalists in both Seoul and Washington ahead of Trump's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that he could put the USFK on the bargaining table. North Korea did not even visibly insist on this issue in preparatory talks, though it has long demanded the withdrawal of the USFK in principle.
Right after the inter-Korean summit on April 27, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis set alarm bells ringing when he said the USFK is "part of the issues that we'll be discussing in negotiations with our allies first, and of course with North Korea."
The White House contradicted him at first, but U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said more recently that the USFK issue should not be made public so that U.S. and North Korean leaders can take the liberty to make right decisions. Moon tried to put the issue to rest, saying, "The USFK is a matter of the Seoul-Washington alliance," but now seems to find himself at sea.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would ensure that the USFK's numbers do not fall below 22,000 without authorization from Congress. This step is believed to have been taken deliberately to prevent Trump from abruptly deciding to pull out troops or drastically cut numbers. The bill still awaits passage in a full Senate session.
Military experts believe that the ongoing negotiations between Seoul and Washington on sharing the financial burden for the USFK will be the first turning point for the fate of the USFK.
Since he was on the campaign trail, Trump has called on Seoul to pay much more for the upkeep of the USFK and has ordered U.S. negotiators to make sure that Seoul pays over 1.5 times more than its current annual share of W960.2 billion (US$1=W1,078).
A researcher with a government-funded think tank here said, "If there continues to be a difference of opinions over cost sharing, it's possible that demands for the USFK withdrawal or reduction will come from Seoul or Washington first, not Pyongyang."
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