US reacts warily to North Korea dropping demand for pullout of American troops from South

North Korea has long demanded that the 28,500 US troops in South Korea be withdrawn, citing their presence as a pretext to justify its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
North Korea has long demanded that the 28,500 US troops in South Korea be withdrawn, citing their presence as a pretext to justify its pursuit of nuclear weapons.PHOTO: AFP

KEY WEST, FLORIDA (NYTIMES) - The Trump administration has privately dismissed the idea of North Korea dropping its demand that US troops be removed from South Korea as a capitulation, because a US withdrawal was never on the table.

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

The move could increase pressure on the United States 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 keep 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 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. "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 United States and South Korea, which is deeply invested in bringing an end to the 68-year military conflict on the Korean Peninsula and will view Mr Kim's offer as an important step in that direction.

"It's a classic, deft North Korean manoeuvre, which puts us at a disadvantage and makes us look like bad guys if we reject it," said Mr Evan Medeiros, a former Asia adviser to President Barack Obama.

In South Korea, where Mr Moon announced Mr Kim's shift, he said it had encouraged the United States to proceed with plans to hold its first-ever summit meeting with North Korea. And he said the North was already showing a willingness to make concessions.

"The North Koreans did not present any conditions that the United States could not accept, such as the withdrawal of American troops in South Korea," Mr Moon told newspaper publishers in Seoul, before his own planned summit meeting with Mr Kim next Friday (April 27).

"They only talk about an end to hostilities against their country and about getting security guarantees," Mr Moon said. "It's safe to say that the plans for dialogue between the North and the United States could proceed because that has been made clear."

When Mr Moon's special envoys met with Mr Kim in Pyongyang early last month, Mr Kim said his country would no longer need nuclear weapons if it did not feel "threatened militarily" and was provided with "security guarantees".

North Korea issued an official government statement as recently as 2016 calling on Washington to announce the withdrawal of US troops if it wanted to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula.

Since the 1990s, however, North Korean officials have occasionally told the Americans and South Koreans that they could live with a US military presence if Washington signed a peace treaty and normalised ties with the North.

Mr Kim's father and predecessor, Mr Kim Jong Il, sent a party secretary to the United States in 1992 to deliver that message.

When South Korea's President at the time, Mr Kim Dae Jung, met with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2000, the North Korean leader was quoted as saying that keeping US troops in Korea for "stability in North-east Asia" even after a reunification was "not a bad idea, provided that the status and the role of US troops be changed".

"It is desirable that US troops stay as a peacekeeping force in Korea, instead of a hostile force against the North," Mr Kim Jong Il said, according to the book Peacemaker, by Lim Dong Won, who attended the 2000 inter-Korean summit meeting.

Despite their suspicions about the younger Kim's motives, US officials did not diminish the significance of his offer from a domestic standpoint.

For decades, they said, the Kim family has survived by fuelling a narrative of American aggression against the North.

Declaring they could live with troops could undercut that narrative.

They said the announcement built on Mr Kim's earlier decision not to protest joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea - a step that did smooth the way for Mr Trump to accept Mr Kim's invitation to meet.

To some extent, administration officials also need to manage Mr Trump, who speaks often of the historic opportunity he has to settle one of the world's longest-running conflicts.

"We've never been in a position like this with that regime, whether it's father, grandfather or son," Mr Trump said on Wednesday. "And I hope to have a very successful meeting."

The President did not address the news of North Korea's offer on troops on Thursday. After Mr Abe left Palm Beach on Thursday, Mr Trump pivoted from diplomacy to law enforcement, travelling to a sun-kissed military base here to showcase his administration's efforts to cut off the flow of drugs into the United States from Central and South America.

Administration officials have been extremely circumspect about what Mr Pompeo discussed with Mr Kim during their meeting over Easter weekend.

But he did raise the issue of three Americans detained in North Korea, and officials expressed cautious optimism that the United States was making progress in getting them out.

Analysts said that even if North Korea accepted a US military presence in the South, it might demand that it be significantly reconfigured and reduced.

In its 2016 statement, North Korea also demanded that the United States stop deploying long-range bombers, submarines and other "nuclear-strike capabilities" in and around South Korea if it wanted a nuclear-free peninsula, a condition that analysts said would doubtless please China.

On Thursday, Mr Moon dismissed concerns that the United States might end up recognising North Korea as a de facto nuclear power in return for a promise to freeze its nuclear and missile programmes.

"I don't think there is any difference between the parties over what they mean by denuclearisation," Mr Moon said. "North Korea is expressing a willingness to denuclearise completely."

In the separate South Korean and US summit meetings with Mr Kim, Mr Moon said there would be "no big difficulties" in reaching "broad agreements in principle".

North Korea, he said, would agree to denuclearise in return for normalised ties with the United States; aid to help rebuild its economy; and a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War.

The challenge, he said, is in working out a road map to such a deal. "As they say, the devil is in details," Mr Moon said.