DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The potential summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has put the spotlight on U.S. service members who are stationed on the Korean Peninsula. American troops have been there for nearly 70 years. More recently, though, they have become something of a political football. North Korea wants them out as part of any nuclear deal. South Korea wants them to stay to help with its defense. And President Trump has reportedly considered reducing their numbers to save money.
NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has more about how the American long-term commitment to South Korea's defense seems to be evolving in this administration.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Yelling unintelligibly).
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: U.S. and South Korean troops dash along a wooden trail north of Seoul.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE GUNS FIRING)
BOWMAN: Others fire machine guns and launch mortars, trying to push back an imagined attack. It's an annual exercise called Foal Eagle, and thousands of soldiers take part. Retired Army General Walter Skip Sharp knows something about it. He commanded troops in South Korea for three years, until 2011.
WALTER SHARP: You are trying to coordinate and synchronize artillery, maneuver, direct fire from tanks and helicopters and all of that being done in a live-fire scenario. You'll bring targets up in sequence like somebody is attacking.
BOWMAN: That somebody, of course, being North Korean forces streaming across the DMZ. Sharp says North Korea conducts similar live-fire scenarios.
SHARP: They have exercises very much like this. They have a winter and a summer training cycle.
BOWMAN: Still, North Korea recently canceled a meeting with South Korea because of the Foal Eagle exercise, charging it was a dress rehearsal for an attack on the North, and brushing aside U.S. officials who said the exercise is only defensive. And the North has also suggested that U.S. troops should be removed as part of any deal to eliminate its nuclear weapons program. The South has said U.S. troops should not be a bargaining chip. Any reduction in the 28,000 American troops should be decided separately between its government and the U.S.
President Trump recently told reporters that U.S. troops were not on the table. But he still complained about the expense. Analysts say South Korea spends about 800 million a year for U.S. forces, about half the cost.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now, I have to tell you - at some point into the future, I would like to save the money.
BOWMAN: So all this talk about American forces raises the question - why does the U.S. still need troops in South Korea, a country which has created a formidable military that takes part in peacekeeping missions around the world? Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri recently posed this question to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROY BLUNT: What do you see as the importance of our presence, not only in the Korean Peninsula but also our regional presence?
JAMES MATTIS: The presence of our forces there is a stabilizing presence. The Americans are committed, and this resonates among allies.
BOWMAN: So those American troops in South Korea are not just there to halt an attack from the North but to protect allies like Japan. Victor Cha supports that. He worked in the White House on Asian affairs during the George W. Bush administration.
VICTOR CHA: Whether we like it or not, since the end of World War II, the United States has been a Pacific power in Asia that has maintained its credibility and its commitments to governments in the region by our troop presence there.
BOWMAN: An American troop presence, he says, that also has an economic angle.
CHA: I mean, that has been the nature of the U.S. commitment, to show that we will be there to protect sea lanes to prevent the rise of another hegemon in the region. And that has stabilized not just the politics of the region but also the markets.
BOWMAN: But Doug Bandow, a foreign affairs analyst who worked in the Reagan White House, has another view of U.S. troops in South Korea.
DOUG BANDOW: Well, they're no longer necessary.
BOWMAN: They were back in 1953, he says, when an armistice was signed, the South was weak and the war could have reignited. At that time, there were some 327,000 U.S. troops there.
BANDOW: You know, today South Korea has something around 45 times the GDP, about twice the population of the North. So there's no reason why the South cannot build a military sufficient to both deter and also defeat, if necessary, the North.
BOWMAN: There are plenty of U.S. troops elsewhere in Asia. But the ones in South Korea, he says, just aren't needed.
BANDOW: They don't add much to South Korea's defense. They simply allow South Korea to spend less on their military.
BOWMAN: This isn't the first time a president has suggested removing U.S. troops from South Korea. President Jimmy Carter raised it in the 1970s, partly as a way to save money. His advisers strongly opposed it, including an American general in South Korea who was removed for criticizing the plan.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.