Advisers hoping to prevent president pulling US troops out of Korea to save money
For almost two years, President Donald Trump has been talking about withdrawing large numbers of US troops from South Korea, where there are 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 US troops in South Korea are strategically necessary, and he thinks the US gets nothing back from paying to keep them there, according to officials and people who have spoken to Trump about the issue. He often asks his generals to explain the rationale for US 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 US troops there. If those negotiations fail, Trump could have another excuse to move forward with reductions.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said at last weekend's Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that US 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.
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 Kelly reportedly talked Trump down from starting a withdrawal.
The idea of reducing US forces in South Korea is not new. Defence Secretary Donald 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 troop presence in Korea is 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. In Carter's case, his advisers successfully fought back. 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 Trump to abandon his drive to drastically pare down the number of US forces on the Korean Peninsula. Republican Senator Dan Sullivan successfully added an amendment to next year's National Defence Authorisation 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 US 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 93pc of the $10.7bn (€9bn) cost to expand the US Army garrison Camp Humphreys. Separate from that, South Korea pays 50pc of all operating costs for US troops stationed there. If they came home, the US would pay 100pc.
Signals sent by those close to South Korean President Moon Jae-in are also feeding into concern Trump will move quickly on US 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.
President Carter eventually backed off from withdrawing US troops from South Korea because he realised the world was becoming more dangerous, not less, and that was not the right moment to be pulling up stakes and calling alliances into question. The same lesson applies to Trump today.
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