The move comes just weeks before the president is expected to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and days after the two Koreas held a summit at the Demilitarized Zone, where they laid the foundation for a formal end to the Korean War and discussed ways to denuclearize the peninsula.
The Times, citing unnamed sources briefed on the order, said Trump has been determined to reduce the number of troops in South Korea, citing the cost and the fact that their presence has done little to quash North Korea’s antagonistic nuclear weapon program. It’s unclear if Trump would push for a full or partial reduction in troop numbers, but a full reduction is unlikely.
The U.S. currently has 28,500 troops stationed in the country, and South Korea, a longtime ally, pays nearly $890 million a year in expenses, or about half the total cost. That deal expires at the end of this year, and Trump hopes to convince Seoul to foot more of the bill.
South Korea on Friday denied the Times’ report, saying a “key” official of the U.S. National Security Council told the country’s national security chief, Chung Eui-yong, that the news was false, Bloomberg and Reuters reported.
The White House on Friday issued a statement from National Security Adviser John Bolton calling the report “utter nonsense.”
Earlier this week, South Korea said that, regardless of the outcome of peace negotiations with the North, the country wanted U.S. troops to remain in the country. The comment came after a prominent adviser to President Moon Jae-in wrote that it would be “difficult to justify” the presence of U.S. forces were the conflict with Kim to end.
“U.S. troops stationed in South Korea are an issue regarding the alliance between South Korea and the United States,” Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for Seoul’s Blue House, said in a statement responding to the adviser, Moon Chung-in. “It has nothing to do with signing peace treaties.”
North Korean analysts questioned the validity of Trump’s order shortly after the Times report. Experts have long said the presence of U.S. soldiers and civilians so close to North Korea has long served as a deterrent to a physical conflict.
“It’s not the nuclear umbrella that keeps [the Republic of Korea] safe. It’s the 30,000 American soldiers and their families living there that do,” Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote on Twitter. “It is literally the blood oath of the American people to South Korea. They value the alliance so much, that they put their lives (and their family’s lives) on the line.”
Kim has long demanded the U.S. place its troop presence on the negotiating table as part of any discussions to give up its nuclear weapons, but officials have long rejected such calls. However, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appeared to say the issue might be open to discussion.
“That’s part of the issues that we’ll be discussing in negotiations with our allies first, and of course with North Korea,” Mattis said last week. “For right now, we just have to go along with process, have the negotiations and not try to make preconditions or presumptions about how it’s going to go.”
This article has been updated to include Friday’s White House statement.