ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Sunday that U.S. troops were not leaving South Korea, despite speculation that the U.S. could reduce its presence amid negotiations with North Korea.
“I’ll say it again, I’m not making news here, the same thing — we’re not going anywhere. It’s not even a subject of the discussions,” Mattis told reporters on the plane en route from Singapore to Washington.
There has been some confusion over whether the U.S. troop presence in South Korea of roughly 28,500, would be affected by negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea.
The U.S. wants North Korea to completely denuclearize, and the North Koreans want, among other things, for U.S. troops to leave the peninsula.
Mattis said during a speech on Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a yearly defense forum, that U.S. troops there would not be on the negotiating table on June 12, but suggested could come up in subsequent rounds of negotiations.
“Obviously, if the diplomats can do their work — if we can reduce the threat. If we can restore confidence-building measures with something verifiable, then, of course, these kinds of issues can come up subsequently between two sovereign democracies — the Republic of Korea and the United States. But that issue is not on the table here in Singapore on the 12th nor should it be,” he said.
And Mattis also said on Sunday that the U.S. military presence could be “up for review” in five years by the U.S. and South Korea.
“If five years from now, ten years from now, it could be up for review, that would be between a democracy called the Republic of Korea and a democracy called the United States of America,” he said.
For now, he said, there might even be more troops going in.
“I saw the Canadian minister at a breakfast this morning. I’m right behind this lieutenant general. I mean, you — these nations are even putting people in. They’re talking about bringing in light infantry, other troops of their own to show, you know, basically that we’re all standing together,” he said.
Mattis also addressed his comment earlier on Sunday, where he said alongside his Japanese and South Korean counterparts that the road to negotiations will be, “at best, a bumpy road.”
“You remember how we were going crazy — ‘Oh, gosh it’s off’ when a bad letter comes in. And immediately it’s back on? Welcome to reality, you know,” he said.
“It’s only on TV that it all goes, and everything’s fitting together and all of that,” Mattis said. “I don’t think they’ve ever been in an international negotiation. We have more experience obviously than a lot of people do in putting something like this together. So yeah, it’s going to be bumpy.”