(CNSNews.com) – Defense Secretary James Mattis said Monday he does not believe the reduction of U.S. troop numbers in South Korea will be on the table in President Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un, which is about to get underway.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Mattis pointed out that the presence of the U.S. military personnel is a matter between the two treaty allies – and “right now the U.S. and South Korea are not engaged” on the topic.
“That is not something that other countries would have – I would just say – initial domain over a discussion with us,” he said, in reference to North Korea.
“It starts between our two countries [the U.S. and South Korea] and that would be premature right now, as we wait for the outcome of the [U.S.-North Korea] negotiations.”
Although Mattis said he did not “believe” the topic of troop reductions would be on the agenda in the Trump-Kim meeting (“I don’t believe it is”), he also said that he “sure would” be aware of it, if it were.
Removal of the U.S. forces – currently some 28,500-strong – has been a priority for the regime in Pyongyang for decades. Under the 1953 mutual defense treaty, the deployment of U.S. forces is tied to obligations to defend the ally in the event of “an armed attack in the Pacific area,” so while North Korea has long been the primary threat, the treaty is not explicitly or exclusively tied to North Korea.
In Singapore earlier Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signaled that Trump was prepared to offer Kim “unique” security assurances, and when asked directly did not unequivocally rule out that those could include U.S. troop reduction in South Korea.
“I’m not going to get into any of the details of the discussions that we’ve had today,” he said, referring to pre-summit preparatory talks at a Singapore hotel led on the U.S. side by U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, a former U.S. special representative for North Korea policy.
“I can only say this,” Pompeo said. “We’re prepared to take what will be security assurances that are different, unique than have been provided – that America’s been willing to provide previously.”
That answer predictably led to the conclusion that he was leaving the door open to troop reduction.
“Would it be erroneous to assume that that’s not on the table?” a reporter asked Pompeo.
“You shouldn’t assume from the fact that I don’t give any detail here today, that some question you posited has any merit,” he responded.
“If you hypothesize something that’s in it, and I refuse to tell you what’s in it, you should assume that I’m simply refusing to tell you what’s in it, and not drawing any conclusions from the negative inference that I think you’re suggesting,” Pompeo said.
The historic summit was due to begin at 9 AM Tuesday Singapore time (9 PM Monday U.S. eastern time) with a one-on-one segment – just Trump, Kim and their interpreters.