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Mattis denies troop drawdown

Defense secretary says that’s an issue between Washington and Seoul
June 06,2018
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reiterated that American troops in South Korea were “not going anywhere” amid speculation that Pyongyang was demanding Washington pull them out in return for its denuclearization ahead of a planned summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un next Tuesday.

“One thing that keeps coming up is about our troop strength on the peninsula,” Mattis told reporters on a plane en route to Washington on Sunday after attending the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security meeting held in Singapore. “I’ll say it again - I’m not making news here - the same thing: we’re not going anywhere. It’s not even a subject of the discussions.

“You know, obviously [they] are there because of security conditions 10 years ago, five years ago, this year,” he said, referring to the 28,500 American troops stationed in the South.

Should the issue be raised five or 10 years from now, he continued, “that would be between a democracy called the Republic of Korea and a democracy called the United States of America.”

The defense secretary stressed there has been “no change” to the troops and that “everything” was “steady.”

“I’m telling you this because I don’t know what more I can say,” he repeated. “If you have questions you want to ask me, I’ll answer the exact same way I just did.”

The remarks came after Trump sparked questions last Friday that the subject might have been raised during his meeting with Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of North Korean Workers’ Party’s Central Committee who traveled to Washington to personally deliver a letter from the North Korean leader.

When asked by a reporter after the meeting whether Kim Yong-chol, who also leads the committee’s United Front Department, which handles inter-Korean relations, mentioned anything about troop levels in South Korea, Trump vaguely replied, “We talked about almost everything. We talked about a lot.”

The most recent hint that North Korea might ask the United States to withdraw its troops from the South came on May 10, when Kim Jong-un reportedly told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he was willing to accept the U.S. military’s presence in South Korea for now but expects that presence to be reduced in the future.

Pompeo was on his second trip to Pyongyang this year in order to lay the groundwork for next Tuesday’s U.S.-North Korea summit. A source with knowledge of his meeting with Kim Jong-un relayed excerpts of the conversation to the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kim was quoted as saying, “We are concerned with the training exercises and arms deployment by U.S. forces, but because of the domestic situation in South Korea and its alliance with the United States, though we aren’t ready to tolerate this situation, we are willing to leave it as it is for now.”

However, Kim added, if the Korean Peninsula maintains peace and “no problems occur,” and “if I act,” the United States should “demonstrate its sincerity” through measures such as a size reduction or the removal of strategic arms.

“If I act” seemed to refer to some progress toward denuclearization.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]