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Trump: U.S. troop withdrawal from South Korea is not on the table — for now

President Trump said withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea is not up for negotiation "at this moment," but "at some point into the future" he would like to. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump said Friday that he will not offer to remove U.S. troops from South Korea or reduce their presence there during his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. But Trump left open the possibility of doing so in the future.

Speaking to reporters at Joint Base Andrews, Trump said he was not considering such a move “at this moment" and emphasized that Pyongyang has not asked the United States to do so. “No, no no," Trump said, when asked about a New York Times report that he had instructed the Pentagon to develop options on troop removal.

But Trump added that “at some point in the future, I'd like to save the money" that it costs to base 30,000 troops on the peninsula, a security arrangement that has been in place since the Korean War armistice in 1953.

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Trump said a date and location have been decided for the summit with Kim, but he declined to disclose those details, saying they would be announced soon. The president has said that Singapore and the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea were under consideration, and he has said the summit could take place in late May or early June.

Earlier Friday, national security adviser John Bolton called the Times report "utter nonsense."

“The President has not asked the Pentagon to provide options for reducing American forces stationed in South Korea," Bolton said in a written statement.

Trump had suggested during his campaign that he was open to potentially reduce U.S. troop presence in South Korea and Japan. He has pressed those nations to spend more to support the American troops, leading to fears in Seoul and Tokyo that the United States would shrink its security umbrella. Foreign policy analysts have suggested that one of Kim's goals in his sudden diplomatic initiatives with the South and the United States is to "decouple" the United States from its longtime defense treaty allies in East Asia.

Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst, said that the danger for the United States in Trump's public flirtations with removing troops is that he is giving up leverage to Kim in advance of the summit.

"Whether or not it's true, we at least know it's being considered," said Pak, now an Asia expert at Brookings. "North Korea watches us as much as we follow North Korea. By all accounts of the readouts of his meetings, Kim is smart and reads up and knows what's going on. To have something like this in a flurry of denials and confirmations and denials and confirmations -- that is not sending the right message to Kim. He might see this as policy dysfunction, but even worse he might see this as a strategic opportunity."

In his remarks to reporters Friday, Trump said his administration is in “constant contact" with North Korean leadership. He said that the administration is having "very substantive talks with North Korea" about three Americans who have been held hostage in that country.

“A lot of things have already happened with regard to the hostages," Trump said. “I think you’re going to be seeing very, very good things.”