Updated : 2018-04-25 16:50
The presence of American troops in South Korea has long been a pressing problem for North Korea.
From Pyongyang’s point of view, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), a legacy of World War II, along with U.S. forces in Okinawa and Guam, are a major security threat.
On many occasions, North Korea has openly cited “military threats” from the U.S. as a pretext for its nuclear development. After the two sides agreed to hold their first summit over denuclearization, concerns were raised the North might renew its long-held demand that the U.S. withdraw troops from the South and use this as a bargaining chip in the denuclearization dialogue.
According to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, however, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will not touch on this issue when he meets U.S. President Donald Trump, possibly in late May or early June.
This, if true, could be a realistic choice by Kim to reach a grand nuclear bargain with Trump by avoiding making demands the U.S. can never accept.
More importantly, North Korea’s perception toward the U.S. troops stationed in the South could be possibly changing.
During the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shared his views about the presence of U.S. troops in the South with President Kim Dae-jung. It is an open secret that Kim did not oppose the U.S. keeping its troops, even after the two Koreas are united, as long as the USFK is given a “new role.” This, of course, shocked Kim and South Korean officials who attended the meeting.
It is only recently that Kim’s thoughts about U.S. troops have become known to the public. According to sources involved in the 2000 summit, Kim had grave concerns about possible Chinese influence on a united Korea, so he believed the continued existence of American troops could act as a balancing tool against China to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula in a post-unification era.
On the surface, however, the North has kept demanding a U.S. troop pullout. And it has used tensions with the U.S. to develop its own nuclear weapons.
It is unknown how the junior Kim views the presence of U.S. forces in the South. But it is not hard to imagine what this means to China.
If circumstances change, Pyongyang and Washington will have opportunities to discuss this issue frankly. Seoul, of course, should not be only a third party in these talks. Who knows? President Moon and Kim Jong-un may have frank discussions on the U.S. troop presence at their meeting on Friday.
Moon, while speaking to the press last week, said North Korea has never made demands that the U.S. side cannot consider for the Kim-Trump summit. The North, instead, asked the U.S. to reconsider its hostile policy and provide a guarantee of security in return for taking denuclearization measures, according to Moon.
“If the two sides have a common understanding about denuclearization, it will not be difficult for them to reach deals,” Moon said. “The deals will be about signing a peace treaty, normalizing bilateral relations and providing international aid to the North for economic development.”
As the Kim-Trump summit looms, China’s feelings toward North Korea will become complicated.
China has long supported direct dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, saying this is essential to establish permanent peace on the peninsula. However, if the two sides foster closer economic and political ties through the summit, it will be a whole different story for China.
In fact, China has long been criticized for using North Korea to defend its interest in its rivalry with the U.S. North Korea’s economic dependence on China is now heavier than ever, and it will surely make all possible efforts to prevent the U.S. from damaging its interests on the peninsula.
Is North Korea really seeing U.S. troops in the South differently? If so, this will pose a grave security challenge for China.