N. Korea drops troop withdrawal demand but US is wary

KEY WEST, FLORIDA • North Korea has dropped its demand that US troops be removed from South Korea as a condition for giving up its nuclear weapons, South Korea's President said in presenting the idea to the United States.

President Moon Jae In portrayed the proposal as a concession on the eve of talks involving the two Koreas and the US. The North has long demanded that the 28,500 US troops be withdrawn, citing their presence as a justification of its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But in Washington, the Trump administration privately dismissed the idea that it was a capitulation by the North because a US withdrawal from the South was never on the table.

Mr Mike Pompeo, the Central Intelligence Agency director whom President Donald Trump secretly sent to Pyongyang two weeks ago to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, did not ask him to take such a step, senior officials said.

The move could increase pressure on the US to support negotiations between North and South Korea on a peace treaty that would end the Korean War. While Mr Trump gave those talks his blessing this week, officials said his ultimate goal is to force North Korea to relinquish its nuclear programme.

A peace treaty, they said, should be signed only after the North has given up its weapons.

Mr Trump has expressed excitement about his own planned summit meeting with Mr Kim but on Wednesday, he said he was ready to bail out before, or even during, the meeting if he concluded that diplomacy was not bearing fruit.

He also said the US would continue sanctions on North Korea until it relinquishes its nuclear programme.

"We have great respect for many aspects of what they're doing, but we have to get it together," Mr Trump said at a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

"We have to end nuclear weapons."

Analysts and former officials said the White House was right to be wary of Mr Kim's offer. They said it could drive a wedge between the US and South Korea.

Many analysts were sceptical about Mr Moon's version of events, noting that he wants the summit to be a success so that Mr Trump will go ahead with his own meeting with Mr Kim, tentatively planned for late May or early June.

Dr Vipin Narang, a non-proliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he would be "very, very careful" about interpreting Mr Moon's statement as a sign that Mr Kim had conceded that the troops could stay.

"This is a very clever semantic pirouette," he said, adding that just because North Korea had not explicitly asked for US forces to leave did not mean that it had not included that step as part of its demand for "ending hostilities".

Others noted that North Korea has said very little about all this.

"I sure wish KCNA were the one saying this stuff," Dr Robert Kelly, a political scientist at South Korea's Pusan National University, wrote on Twitter. The KCNA or Korean Central News Agency is one of the North's main mouthpieces.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2018, with the headline 'N. Korea drops troop withdrawal demand but US is wary'. Print Edition | Subscribe