The United States could withdraw its troops in South Korea if upcoming talks between the US and North Korea go well, but it will not be "on the table nor should it be" at the Singapore summit on June 12.
Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday (June 2), US Defence Secretary James Mattis said "any discussion about the number of US troops in the Republic of Korea is subject to the Republic of Korea's invitation to have them there, and the discussions between the United States and the Republic of Korea, separate and distinct from the negotiations that are going on with DPRK (North Korea)".
Mr Mattis was asked at the high-level security conference about whether the status of American troops in the Korean Peninsula would be discussed at the summit, which has been confirmed by US President Donald Trump only hours ago.
"Obviously if the diplomats can do their work, if we can reduce the threat, if we can restore confidence-building measures with something verifiable, then of course these kinds of issues can come up subsequently between two sovereign states (South Korea and the US)," said the Pentagon chief.
South Korean Defence Minister Song Young Moo, when asked at a later session, also said the presence of "US forces in Korea is a separate issue from North Korea's nuclear issue".
"US forces stay in the Korean Peninsula to maintain stability and peace in the Korean Peninsula and North-east Asia," he said.
Recent reports suggested that Mr Trump had wanted to withdraw some or all of the 28,500 troops based in South Korea, and was considering using it as a bargaining chip while negotiating with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The US has stationed troops in South Korea since 1953 when a defence treaty was signed after the Korean War.
China does not welcome US presence in its neighbourhood, with speculation that it had suggested to Mr Kim to ask for troop withdrawal at the negotiating table with the US.
On Friday, Mr Mattis said the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of North Korea remains the objective of the US and the international community.
At the dialogue on Saturday, he also expressed his gratitude to Singapore for hosting the summit at short notice, saying the island-state had "taken it all in stride".
"The eyes and hope of the world are on these talks," Mr Mattis said.