“Even after reunification of the Korean Peninsula takes place, I believe there will be a need for the continued presence of U.S. forces in Korea, because we also have to concern ourselves with Russia and China,” said Hoon Sul, a representative in South Korea’s National Assembly.
Hoon was part of a six-person delegation led by Choo Mi-ae, former leader of the governing Democratic Party and a key ally of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
In a group interview Wednesday, Choo said the lawmakers had come to Washington in a bid to explain Seoul’s position to their counterparts in Congress.
“The Korean Peninsula and the U.S. continent are physically quite far apart, and, as such, there are times when we are not sure what the other are doing,” Choo said. “The choices that are facing us are quite critical in order for us to have a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
The visit came just days before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was due to return to Pyongyang to try to kick-start denuclearization talks with North Korea.
One key topic of discussion during Pompeo’s trip may be whether the United States will agree to a declaration that the Korean War is officially over. During a recent interview with The Washington Post, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said such a declaration could be made in return for North Korea permanently dismantling its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon.
“I think that’s a huge step forward for denuclearization,” Kang said.
Speaking on Wednesday, Choo summed up the South Korean policy as “no war, no nukes and no gap” — the last part referring to no gap in expectations between South Korea and the United States. She said the U.S. lawmakers she had met had expressed skepticism that North Korea is sincere about its willingness to give up nuclear weapons
“We have to create a situation where they have to follow through. That’s what we have to do, that’s what politics is: We have to make the impossible possible,” Choo said, adding one possibility might be that legislators from both South Korea and the United States could head to North Korea to observe the destruction of Yongbyon and other facilities.
An end-of-the-war declaration was a logical step, she said, as President Trump had agreed to end hostilities with North Korea when meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12: “What does it mean when someone says I will end hostilities with you? That means the end of war.”
The Korean War halted with a truce in 1953, but a formal peace treaty was never signed. North Korea has demanded a peace treaty in a number of recent propaganda missives; the U.S. president has suggested at points he considers the end of the war a possibility.
However, many in Washington — inside and outside the administration — are skeptical about such a move. One particular concern is an end-of-war declaration (and beyond that, a subsequent peace treaty) could be used by North Korea and China to demand the removal of the 28,500 U.S. forces stationed in South Korea.
Recent polls of the American public have found strong support for keeping at least some of these troops in South Korea — even if North Korea denuclearizes. The situation is complicated by Trump’s own criticism of the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Trump has said he would be willing to withdraw troops from the Korean Peninsula if Seoul did not pay more for their upkeep.
U.S. military bases are also controversial within South Korea, with many on the left, including supporters of Moon, pondering the withdrawal of troops. In April, Blue House foreign policy adviser Moon Chung-in wrote that it would “be difficult to justify [U.S. troops'] continuing presence in South Korea” if a peace treaty were signed.
Following the collapse of the previous right-wing Park Gyun-hye administration under the weight of numerous scandals, South Korea’s conservative politicians — typically the most pro-American force in the country — are in crisis, with little influence in politics at the national level.
Choo said that despite this, it was the position of President Moon and his liberal predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, that U.S. troops should remain on the peninsula.
“As long as the U.S. remains the keeper of global peace, we want to have U.S. forces in South Korea,” she said.
“If you were to look at Korean history, because we are a peninsula country we are surrounded by some very strong powers. To us, the U.S. has been — for the most part — our friend,” Hoon said, adding U.S. influence had saved the life of Kim Dae-jung a number of times. “If it weren’t for the Americans, I think we might be under communist rule now.”