In less than a week, the issue that has lurked behind President Trump’s drive to talk to North Korea — his desire to reduce U.S. troop levels at overseas bases — has gone from inside baseball to front page headlines in the U.S. and South Korea. NBC got the scoop about John Kelly’s pre-Olympic discussions last Monday and Moon Chung-in created another dustup for himself in Seoul with his candid Foreign Affairs article on Tuesday. But it was the New York Times story on Thursday that put it squarely in the public eye. The Korean media were left with Blue House and White House denials that a troop withdrawal was on the table. And Trump said Friday it was not something he would negotiate with Kim Jong Un, but added that he would like to save the costs of the American troop presence in South Korea.
Amid all this bringing to boil of the troop issue, Trump at a speech to the NRA meeting in Texas congratulated himself on his out-there style when it came to dealing with North Korea. From a Washington Post account :
“Everybody said, ‘Ohh, don’t talk, please don’t talk,’ ” Trump said. “ ‘Don’t talk! You may make them and him angry! Don’t talk! If a horrible statement is made about the United States, don’t say anything. No comment.’ ”
He added dismissively: “Please, please, oh my God.”
This discussion has progressed among scholars, analysts and policymakers in the U.S. and South Korea for many years. Many forget that during the last time that North Korea was negotiating denuclearization with the U.S. — from 2005 to 2007, in the Six Party Talks process that also involved South Korea, Japan, China and Russia — there were separate talks happening between Seoul and Washington that led to a reduction of U.S. troops on the peninsula and an agreement to transfer wartime operational control of South Korean troops to Seoul. There are many complexities to the U.S. troop deployment in South Korea. While they are not unrelated to the North Korea matter, they are not totally related either.
And as I’ve noted before, since the Korea Shock on March 8, no U.S. analyst has captured the conflicted strategy of North Korea toward the U.S. military presence as well as Bob Carlin, a former diplomatic interlocutor with the North. Headlined “Please Go, But Not Quite Yet,” Carlin last month wrote:
A key question is going to be timing. Presumably, if they stop to think about it, no one expects US troops to remain in Korea forever and ever. It’s not so much a question of whether the North is looking for a withdrawal of US troops, but when? Over the decades, Pyongyang has shifted from demanding the “immediate” withdrawal of US troops, to something much more nuanced, even making clear on occasion that it wouldn’t mind if US troops stay for many years.
In recent days, plenty of U.S. analysts have criticized Trump for letting his desires for a drawdown become known. A common theme: that he has again put things on the table sooner than he should have. Adam Mount of the Defense Posture Project had a 20-part Twitter thread along this line Friday. Two portions:
THREAD on Trump ordering “the Pentagon to prepare options for drawing down American troops in South Korea.” Americans need to know just how extreme and irresponsible this is. https://t.co/UcTTYwbFSq
— Adam Mount (@ajmount) May 4, 2018
11. It’s hard to overstate just how radical this view is. Before Trump, the best KJU could hope for is that the alliance would modify force structure after major nuclear & conventional disarmament. Now, Trump is pushing his chips across the table before the cards are even dealt.
— Adam Mount (@ajmount) May 4, 2018
Trump has a record of speaking more openly about things that past presidents and diplomats wouldn’t. On the Korea issue, how far will Trump’s candor go? He has laid bare the troop issue, so what’s next?
Will he push Kim Jong Un to declare his mid- and long-term intentions and goals? Will he force Moon Jae-in to state what he thinks the peninsula should look like 10 or 20 years from now?
Most importantly, will he get both Kim and Moon to bring into the open the inconvenient truth the two have swept aside for the moment: that both North and South eventually want to preside over the entire peninsula? And if Trump blasts that charade into the open, how will they proceed?