White House

Peace between North, South Korea won't mean a homecoming for US troops in the Korean Peninsula

With new troops rotating to South Korea from Fort Hood, Texas and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Pentagon says it’s too soon to consider withdrawing U.S. troops even as the two countries discuss ending the war that has been stalemated for almost 70 years.

Talk of peace on the Korean Peninsula brings up a strange scenario for the Pentagon. The Defense Department has numerous planning books for all manner of military scenarios with different countries, but not necessarily directions for preparing for peace.

The interest in whether to keep the more than 25,000-troop US presence along the Korean Peninsula was piqued last week when South Korean President Moon Jae-In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met to discuss denuclearization and the possible end to the Korean War.

Mike Carpenter, a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration, said he’s unaware of any Defense Department planning that outlines a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula.

“We’re in kind of unchartered territory as far as what this means and what the Trump, Kim negotiations bring out,” Carpenter said, referring to the summit between President Donald Trump and Kim happens, possibly later this month.

Trump has repeatedly raised the idea of pulling the more than 25,000 troops from South Korea, but his military leaders this weekend reaffirmed the United State’s 'ironclad commitment' to defend South Korea.

“We continue to provide military options to the president,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesman. “That is what the DOD does. Obviously this is squarely in the diplomatic lane at this point.”

North Korea has long demanded that the United States withdraw its troops as part of any talks to denuclearize. But former Pentagon officials said they see almost no scenario in which the United States picks up and leaves. But they could see a possible reduction in force and scale back of military exercises in the region.

Families of Fort Hood and Fort Sill, which is 2 1/2 hours' drive outside of Fort Worth, as well as their leaders, welcome talks of peace after months of heightened rhetoric between Trump and Kim. But they’re also cautious.

“As a representative of thousands of soldiers stationed at Fort Hood, I always prefer to see diplomacy prevail over war,” said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas. “But as history has taught us, it’s crucial to remain vigilant where the North Korean regime is concerned.”

Members of Fort Hood's 1st Cavalry Division, 2nd Armored Brigade, Combat Team “Blackjack” returned in February from Korea where they were on a 9-month rotation focusing on combat readiness and training to confront North Korean aggression.

As they returned, some 350 troops from Fort Sill, which is also a 2 1/2 hour drive from Fort Worth, were on their way for their own nine-month rotation operating U.S. Multiple Launch Rocket Systems as part of a show of force against North Korea.

“Fort Sill soldiers will remain there and maintain their current operations,” said Monica Guthrie, a spokeswoman for Fort Sill. “There is no change to what they’re doing as of now.”

There is no doubt that Trump would love to see the U.S. reducing the military footprint on the Korean Peninsula, Carpenter said. It's costly and also involves a lot of ground forces that could be freed up for other operations or brought home, he said.

"U.S. ground forces...are stretched really thin," Carpenter said. "We have too many deployments. We’ve got too many forces in various overseas locations that are being stressed. ... So any time you bring back forces, it relieves the families not necessarily because the Korean deployment is so onerous, because I don’t think it is. But it means there is more fluidity in the pipeline in the system. And that makes it easier for other deployed forces because you can shift things around the globe."

It was only a few months ago that Trump was referring to the North Korean leader as “Little Rocket Man” and bragging on Twitter that his nuclear “button” was larger than Kim's in Pyongyang, North Korea.

But now Trump is describing the North Korean dictator as “very honorable” and “open and straightforward” as they get closer to announcing a date and location for the historic talks between the two leaders.

“The United States has never been closer to potentially having something happen with respect to the Korean Peninsula that can get rid of the nuclear weapons, can create so many good things, so many positive things, and peace and safety for the world,” Trump said Monday.

Trump has floated the idea of pulling troops out of South Korea since the campaign, as have his predecessors.

President Jimmy Carter sought and failed to withdraw troops in South Korea in an effort to cut the defense budget.

Abraham Denmark, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia in the Obama administration, urges a healthy dose of skepticism about the talks noting previous efforts by the North and South Korea to reduce tensions and bring about a peace treaty date back to the 1970s.

He said there are many questions of what an alliance would look like in the event a peace treaty is signed. But if talks succeed, Denmark can see the possibility of a reduction in force or change in scope for the U.S. military. It must be done carefully, he said.

“South Korea depends on the United States to defend itself,” Denmark said. “If the United States reduces its military presence on the Korean peninsula prematurely while the threat from North Korea remains, it could force our allies to look for alternative ways to defend themselves, including developing nuclear weapons.”

Some South Korean lawmakers have already floated the idea of “nuclear sovereignty” out of concern they can no longer rely on the United States to protect the south from the north.