Trump orders Pentagon to consider reducing US forces in South Korea; Seoul dismisses report

A file photo of US soldiers standing guard during a joint medical evacuation exercise at a South Korean Army hospital in Goyang, north-west of Seoul, on March 14, 2017.

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump has ordered the Pentagon to prepare options for drawing down US troops in South Korea, just weeks before he holds a landmark meeting with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, according to several people briefed on the deliberations.

Just hours after the New York Times ran the report, Seoul's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, quoting an official from the White House National Security Council, issued a statement to say that the US is not considering a reduction in the number of its troops stationed in South Korea.

The US National Security Council official told a visiting South Korean official in Washington via telephone the report was false, reported Yonhap news agency.

President Moon Jae In's top security adviser Chung Eui Yong is currently in Washington to meet his US counterpart, John Bolton, ahead of an expected summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim. Chung will also brief US officials on last Friday's summit between Moon and Kim.

Among issues to be decided before Trump can meet Kim are where and when they will hold their summit.

Trump has suggested holding the meeting, which is expected in late May or early June, at the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas.

This would require close coordination with Seoul, although officials in the South Korean president's office have said there has been no official requests to prepare the venue for the summit.

Chung may address the issue of a venue in Washington but he was more likely to discuss a "bigger deal" with US officials pertaining to North Korea, a South Korean official said.

The White House and Pentagon did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the New York Times report.

The New York Times piece quotes officials as saying that reduced troop levels are not intended to be a bargaining chip in Trump's talks with Kim about his weapons programme.

But they acknowledged that a peace treaty between the two Koreas could diminish the need for the 23,500 soldiers stationed on the peninsula.

Trump has been determined to withdraw troops from South Korea, arguing that the United States is not adequately compensated for the cost of maintaining them, that the troops are mainly protecting Japan and that decades of US military presence had not prevented the North from becoming a nuclear threat.

His latest push coincides with tense negotiations with South Korea over how to share the cost of the military force. Under an agreement that expires at the end of 2018, South Korea pays about half the cost of the upkeep of the soldiers - more than US$800 million (S$1 billion) a year. The Trump administration is demanding that it pay for virtually the entire cost of the military presence.

The directive has rattled officials at the Pentagon and other agencies, who worry that any reduction could weaken the US alliance with South Korea and raise fears in neighbouring Japan at the very moment that the United States is embarking on a risky nuclear negotiation with the North.

Officials declined to say whether Trump was seeking options for a full or partial reduction of troops, although a full withdrawal was unlikely. They emphasised that rethinking the size and configuration of the US force was overdue, regardless of the sudden flowering of diplomacy with North Korea.

The South Korean government reiterated this week that the troops were still needed. But even close allies of President Moon Jae-in have raised doubts about the rationale for a long-term US presence.

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