Last summer, amid a volley of threats between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, I wrote in The Star about heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. My, how the times have changed.
Starting with the diplomatic thaw at the Winter Olympics and most recently with the leaders’ historic summit, the drums of war have turned into tentative trumpets of peace.
The inter-Korean summit carried its own significance, but it also set the stage for the possible June 12 Singapore meeting between Kim and Trump (though its likelihood varies by the day). If it happens, the two sides will have many issues to address.
One of these issues involves the intention of the two Koreas to formally end the Korean War, and what it means for the United States’ military presence in South Korea. The U.S. entered the war on the South’s side in 1950 as part of the United Nations Command. Fighting concluded in 1953 with an armistice — not a peace treaty, meaning the countries involved are technically still at war. The U.S. left a contingency force that remains to this day. While the troop numbers have slowly decreased through the decades, there are still currently about 29,000 U.S. military personnel in South Korea.
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Moon and Kim hope to sign a peace treaty by the end of this year, and Trump gave the idea his blessing. This has many asking whether the military presence and U.S.-South Korean alliance in general are justified if North Korea is no longer a belligerent nation. In recent weeks, Trump has reportedly ordered the Pentagon to explore options for troop level reductions in South Korea. To be fair, he has discussed this idea before as he sees alliances as more transactional than strategic.
In the president’s view, South Korea (like others) has been freeloading on American military protection without reciprocating financially. Although the official stance from Seoul and Washington is that the military is not a bargaining chip in negotiations with North Korea, a reduction in American boots on the ground in South Korea would probably go a long way toward satisfying Pyongyang’s desire for security from the U.S.
If it were solely a North-South Korea issue, perhaps the process would be simple. However, the American military presence is part of its overall strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, which is growing more significant in U.S. foreign policy. Many experts warn that leaving the peninsula would cede Washington’s regional influence to Beijing.
China has made it clear that it wants the United States out of its backyard. The struggle for influence in the Pacific extends beyond Northeast Asia. The United States has troops in the Philippines, regularly makes excursions through the South China Sea, and is strengthening military ties with Australia, among others. Simply put, the soldiers and Marines in South Korea constitute less of their own isolated front and more of a unit in the American geopolitical machine. Additionally, the U.S. and South Korean governments are putting finishing touches on the new $10.7 billion Camp Humphreys south of Seoul, which will be the largest overseas American military base in the world.
There is no telling how the Trump-Kim summit will go. It is possible both leaders will want to continue riding this wave of diplomatic momentum, and the mood here in Seoul is better when the U.S. president is not threatening “fire and fury.” But after the two leaders are finished trying to out-smile each other and the cameras are off, the big questions will remain and diplomats will have their work cut out for them.
Many Koreans are cautiously optimistic about the prospects for a more stable future. If the presence of American military is indeed a part of the upcoming negotiations, it would mean major changes in South Korea and the region in general. In that sense, the summit between Kim and Trump will likely cause strategic waves throughout the Northeast Asia, not just in the waters around the Korean Peninsula.
Nate Kerkhoff of Overland Park is a student at Yonsei University’s Graduate School for International Studies in Seoul, South Korea.