SEOUL—Powerful voices in Washington and Seoul have given a burst of energy to a question long relegated to the margins of public debate: If a peace deal can be struck with Pyongyang, would there be any need for U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula?
The suggestion, once taboo in Washington and Seoul, comes ahead of a planned summitbetween North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, where some North Korea watchers expect Mr. Kim to raise the idea with the U.S. president.
What Would Peace Look Like on the Korean Peninsula?
A fringe minority of peace activists in South Korea has for decades called for the removal of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea, calling them an affront to the country’s sovereignty and an obstacle to peace. That is largely in line with North Korea’s consistent position in calling for their removal.
Generally in South Korea and the U.S., however, the idea of withdrawal or troop reduction has been regarded as a nonstarter. Both the White House and South Korea’s left-leaning Moon Jae-in administration have been careful to underscore the importance of the U.S.-South Korea military alliance for maintaining stability in the region.
On Friday, national security adviser John Bolton joined the Pentagon and South Korea’s presidential office in denying a New York Times report that Mr. Trump had ordered the Pentagon to look into drawing down troops in South Korea.
Mr. Trump on Friday hinted that he would be open to troop withdrawal “at some point in the future,” but suggested that, for now, “troops are not on the table.”
Even so, the debate has picked up steam in the past week as top advisers and officials in the U.S. and South Korean governments express an openness to the idea.
Recently, Moon Chung-in, a professor and senior adviser to South Korea’s president, caused a stir by suggesting in an essay that the U.S. military presence in South Korea would likely have to change if a peace treaty were to be signed to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.
“What will happen to U.S. forces in South Korea if a peace treaty is signed? It will be difficult to justify their continuing presence in South Korea after its adoption,” Prof. Moon wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs.
His commentary came after the two Koreas agreed last week at a summit to pursue a peace treaty.
While the North didn’t call during the inter-Korean summit for a removal of U.S. troops, it did late last year call on the South to “open up the road of peace and reunification” by dismantling the joint U.S.-South Korean command that controls the two countries’ forces and for the U.S. to withdraw.
Prof. Moon earned an unusual public rebuke from South Korea’s presidential Blue House for the article, although he later told reporters that he has “never argued for the removal of U.S. troops” from the peninsula.
In response to the uproar over Prof. Moon’s article, Choo Mi-ae, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party, said last week that “even under a peace treaty, the stationing of U.S. troops in South Korea is necessary.”
The flap over Prof. Moon’s essay came just days after U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis appeared to leave the door open on whether a peace treaty would remove the need for U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula.
Asked by a reporter just hours after the inter-Korean summit last month whether U.S. troops needed to stay in South Korea, Mr. Mattis said the U.S. military presence would be “part of the issues that we’ll be discussing in the negotiations with our allies first and, of course, with North Korea.”
Some U.S. and South Korean observers and politicians expressed concern about the possibility of a reduced American presence.
“There are worrying signs that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea could be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with North Korea,” said the Chosun Ilbo, a conservative newspaper that is South Korea’s largest, in an editorial on Thursday. The South Korean leader “must clearly tell Trump that the issue should not be up for negotiation with Kim.”
Raising the possibility of U.S. troop reductions “will exacerbate ongoing allied fears both in South Korea and Japan about the U.S.’s commitment and resolve to defend them,” says Bruce Klingner, a former Central Intelligence Agency deputy division chief for Korea, now at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. “It’s a worrisome development.”
Mr. Trump has argued that the U.S. gets “practically nothing” for the roughly $1.2 billion a year it spends to station forces in South Korea. The president told a rally in Missouri in March that South Korea was “making a fortune” from trade with the U.S., even as the U.S. protected the country.
South Korea pays a little less than half the cost of stationing U.S. troops in the country, by some calculations. Other Korea watchers have argued U.S. forces support regional stability by countering China’s expansion.
Chung Dong-young, a lawmaker with the left-leaning Party for Democracy and Peace and a former unification minister during the previous liberal administration, said that he believed North Korea’s Mr. Kim understood the importance of U.S. forces in South Korea for maintaining stability in the region. Mr. Chung cited Kim Jong Il, the father of the current leader, who said that the U.S. military could balance the arms race in Northeast Asia and serve as a stabilizing force.
U.S. forces in South Korea are in the process of moving to a new main base, Camp Humphreys, about two hours south of Seoul. Gen. Vincent Brooks, the top U.S. military commander in South Korea, told a Senate committee in 2016 that Seoul paid about 92% of the base’s $10.8 billion construction costs.
For their part, progressive activists say that the recent rapprochement has added momentum to the question of whether the U.S. should downsize its military presence in South Korea.
“The time will come for that debate: whether we should keep our military alliance with Washington, whether the U.S. military should stay, and if so, in what form and how many,” said Park Jung-eun, secretary-general for the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, an activist organization whose former members include some of the top officials in the South Korean administration.
South Korea’s Minjung Party, a left-leaning party with a single seat in the 300-seat National Assembly, backs immediate withdrawal. “The leaders of North and South have declared an era of peace. The raison d’être of the U.S. troops here has disappeared,” said Shin Chang-hyeon, a spokesman for the party. “We have an issue with any foreign military staying in South Korea.”
—Yun-hwan Chae contributed to this article.