Trump: N. Korea summit plans set; U.S. troop drawdown not on table

Saturday, May 5, 2018

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump offered his latest teaser Friday for a historic U.S. summit with North Korea: The time and place have been set but he's not saying when and where.

Trump also pushed back on a report he's considering the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea.

Earlier this week, Trump expressed a preference for holding the "big event" with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the demilitarized zone or DMZ between the two Koreas. He also said Singapore was in contention to host what will be the first summit between a U.S. and a North Korean leader.

"We now have a date and we have a location. We'll be announcing it soon," Trump told reporters Friday from the White House South Lawn before departing for Dallas. He's previously said the summit was planned for May or early June.

A meeting with Kim Jong Un seemed an outlandish possibility just a few months ago when the two leaders were trading threats and insults over North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. But momentum for diplomacy has built this year as the rival Koreas have patched up ties. In March, Trump unexpectedly accepted an offer of talks from Kim after the North Korean dictator agreed to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile tests and discuss "denuclearization."

According to South Korea, Kim has said he'd be willing to give up his nukes if the United States commits to a formal end to the Korean War and pledges not to attack the North. But his exact demands for relinquishing weapons his nation spent decades building remains unclear.

Trump said withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea is "not on the table." Some 28,500 U.S. forces are based in the allied nation, a military presence to deter North Korea since the war ended in 1953 without a peace treaty.

"Now I have to tell you, at some point into the future, I would like to save the money," Trump said later as he prepared to board Air Force One. "You know we have 32,000 troops there, but I think a lot of great things will happen but troops are not on the table. Absolutely."

The New York Times reported Trump has asked the Pentagon to prepare plans for drawing down American troops. It cited unnamed officials as saying the move wasn't intended to be a bargaining chip with Kim, but did reflect a prospective peace treaty between the Koreas could diminish the need for U.S. forces in South Korea.

At the inter-Korean summit April 27, held on the southern side of the DMZ, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim pledged to rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons and seek a formal end this year to the Korean conflict where the opposing sides remain technically at war more than six decades after fighting halted with an armistice.

But for Trump to contemplate withdrawing troops now would be a quixotic move as he enters into negotiations with Kim whose demands and intentions are uncertain. Two weeks ago, shortly before the inter-Korean summit, Moon said Kim actually wasn't insisting on a longstanding demand for the withdrawal of U.S. troops as a precondition for abandoning his nukes.

National security adviser John Bolton, who was due to meet his South Korean counterpart Chung Eui-yong in Washington on Friday, called the Times report "utter nonsense."

During his presidential campaign, Trump complained South Korea does not do enough to financially support the American military commitment. In March, Washington and Seoul began negotiations on how much South Korea should offset the costs of the deployment in the coming years. Under the current agreement expiring at the end of 2018, the South provides about $830 million per year.

Before Trump meets Kim, Washington is looking for North Korea to address another persistent source of tension between the adversaries: the detention of three Korean-Americans accused of anti-state activities in the North.

Trump hinted the release of Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim was in the offing, but again was sparing on the details.

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