For almost two years, President Trump has been talking about withdrawing large numbers of U.S. troops from South Korea, where there are currently around 28,000 stationed. The president’s advisers have repeatedly argued against a large-scale reduction, but he remains unpersuaded. And after his upcoming meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump will have another big chance to push the issue.
Less publicly, but still privately, Trump continues to say he doesn’t agree with the argument that U.S. troops in South Korea are strategically necessary, and he thinks the United States gets nothing back from paying to keep them there, according to administration officials and people who have spoken to Trump directly about the issue. He often asks his generals to explain the rationale for America’s deployments in Asia and expresses dissatisfaction with their answers.
At Trump’s direction, the Pentagon has taken a hard line in ongoing negotiations with the South Korean government over a new cost-sharing agreement for U.S. troops there. If those negotiations fail, Trump could have another excuse to move forward with large reductions.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at last weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that U.S. troop levels are a bilateral discussion with Seoul, and are “separate and distinct” from the North Korea nuclear diplomacy. But he opened the door to discussing it after the summit.
“Obviously, if the diplomats can do their work, if we can reduce the threat, if we can restore confidence-building measures with something verifiable, then of course these kinds of issues can come up subsequently between two sovereign democracies,” Mattis said.
Inside the administration, top officials have been trying — and failing — to convince the president of the strategic value of the South Korea-based troops since the beginning of his administration. In February, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly reportedly talked Trump down from starting a withdrawal.
Last month, the White House denied a New York Times report that Trump had ordered the Pentagon to deliver options for drawing down the U.S. presence in South Korea. Multiple administration officials told me that, although there was no formal tasking, officials in both the Pentagon and the White House are informally discussing various options. They know how the President feels about the issue and want to be prepared.
Some (though not all) of these options were detailed in a Monday Wall Street Journal op-ed. The idea of reducing U.S. forces in South Korea is not new. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld moved 10,000 troops from there to Iraq in 2004. There’s a contingent inside the Trump administration that would support some modifications — such as shifting from ground troops to naval and sea power — that could reduce personnel numbers.
But virtually all of Trump’s national security officials believe the U.S. troop presence in Korea is strategically crucial and must not be gutted. Some fear Trump’s interest is not in establishing appropriate troop levels, but in removing them entirely — without any clear strategic rationale for doing so.
“The president has believed for 30 years that these alliance commitments are a drain on our finite national treasure,” one White House official told me. “He doesn’t care about the intangible, he just sees the bottom line number of what it costs.”
Trump’s dedication to withdrawing troops from South Korea was shared during the 1970s by President Jimmy Carter. Like Trump, Carter campaigned on rolling back America’s worldwide military footprint and wanted to implement it above the objections of his advisers.
In Carter’s case, the bureaucracy successfully fought back. After a new CIA report revealed North Korea’s WMD programs were more dangerous than previously thought, Carter relented. Morton Abramowitz, a Pentagon official during the Carter administration, once said, “We began a rear guard action — delay it, water it down, mitigate the decision as much as possible.”
The Washington effort is heating up to convince — or alternatively pressure — Trump to abandon his drive to drastically pare down the number of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) successfully added an amendment to next year’s National Defense Authorization Act expressing the sense of the Senate that drastic troop reductions would be disastrous.
“Not only do we know that we cannot trust Kim Jong Un before, during, or after this upcoming summit, but we must also be aware that both China and Russia have had the longstanding strategic goal to remove all U.S. forces from South Korea,” Sullivan told me. “Ultimately, we cannot and should not ever trade lawfully-deployed troops on the Korean Peninsula for unlawfully-obtained nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Period.”
The amendment points out that Seoul paid 93 percent of the $10.7 billion cost to expand the U.S. Army garrison Camp Humphreys. Separate from that, South Korea currently pays 50 percent of all operating costs for U.S. troops stationed there. If they came home, the United States would pay 100 percent.
Signals sent by those close to South Korean President Moon Jae-in are also feeding into concern Trump will move quickly on U.S. troops in South Korea post-summit. It will be difficult to sustain political support for the current posture if the South Korean leadership is against it, said Dan Blumenthal, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Moon’s beliefs about Korean unification and are driving much of the process,” he said. “But he has to be careful about what he says or hints about U.S. defense posture on the peninsula.”
President Carter eventually backed off from withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea because he realized the world was becoming more dangerous, not less, and that was not the right moment to be pulling up stakes and calling our alliances into question. The same lesson applies to Trump today.