Troops for Nukes: Should the US Trade Its Forces in South Korea for North Korean Denuclearization?

US-DPRK negotiations on denuclearization are on life support and there are bleak prospects for recovery before the end-of-the-year deadline for progress declared by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It is not unimaginable that US President Donald Trump, as he did when he decided to deal directly with Kim, will go for a bold and unconventional move to break the impasse: a proposal to pull US forces out of South Korea in exchange for North Korea’s final, complete and verifiable denuclearization. Such a last-gasp attempt to keep diplomacy alive may seem attractive to the impulsive and mercurial Trump, but it would inevitably confront a myriad of daunting negotiating, diplomatic, political and technical problems that would likely strangle the idea in its crib.

Will Trump Pull the Trigger on a US Force Withdrawal?

Source: US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joseph Swafford.

For Trump, who has demonstrated a penchant for demanding an exorbitant increase in Seoul’s contribution to US defense costs on the peninsula, the departure of US forces from South Korea would have significant personal and political appeal. As far back as his time as a private real estate developer, Trump has accused US allies and partners of ripping the American people off. The president has been most passionate when discussing South Korea and Japan, two wealthy countries he thinks are taking advantage of the United States’ generosity. During the 2016 presidential election, Trump suggested that it would be a smarter US policy to encourage Japan and South Korea to attain their own nuclear weapons capability rather than maintain long-term US troop deployments in both countries.

Unilaterally removing US forces in the South without getting anything of value in return would be politically impossible and strategically misguided. However, linking such a withdrawal in return for the Kim regime’s nuclear disarmament would at least be more defensible in the court of public opinion. This gambit would also kill two birds with one stone for a president who views diplomacy and relationships in strictly transactional terms: accomplishing the Kim regime’s denuclearization—an achievement he could plausibly tout as vindication of his politically risky, top-down nuclear diplomacy—while extricating the US military from what he views as a costly burden.

In fact, it is easy to imagine the president claiming this deal as a great diplomatic triumph and a major campaign promise kept to his core supporters. The question is whether such a bargain would serve US security interests and command domestic support. There is considerable evidence that a US troop departure under any circumstances would be a tough sell domestically and run into serious implementation problems.

A US Troop Withdrawal: For North Korea, It’s Complicated

The roughly 28,500 US troops in the South have long been an overarching security concern for the Kim dynasty. Pyongyang has consistently pointed to this presence as the foundation of Washington’s hostile policy towards the North and the main impediment to agreement on a peace and security regime on the Korean Peninsula. A withdrawal of US troops would remove a major security threat to North Korea and a central justification for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. That said, there are serious questions about the practicality of such a proposal.

A simple troop withdrawal-for-denuclearization scheme would likely be rejected by Pyongyang as too high a price to pay for dismantling its nuclear deterrent if the Trump administration were unwilling to completely transform the bilateral US-DPRK relationship. In other words, given the high level of North Korean mistrust of the US, pulling out American troops would have to be one of many American concessions included as part of an agreement, including the normalization of diplomatic and economic relations, the suspension or termination of US and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions, security assurances and perhaps a complete rupture of the seven-decade-old US-ROK alliance.

The conventional wisdom notwithstanding, there are also reasons to doubt that the North is hell-bent on seeing US troops pack up and go home. Kim no doubt harbors serious concerns about China’s willingness to abide by the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in the event the Kim regime bumbled into a conflict. The Global Times newspaper, a prominent periodical in official PRC circles, has publicly broached the question of whether the treaty needs to be revised in order to prevent the People’s Liberation Army from being sucked into an unnecessary and deadly conflagration of Pyongyang’s making.

During times of crisis, China does not hesitate to criticize North Korea and has periodically partnered with its American and European colleagues on stronger sanctions measures at the UNSC. Kim is not naïve; he understands that when push comes to shove, North Korea will likely be forced to fend for itself. He is also mistrustful of Chinese intentions toward North Korea, wary of North Korean economic dependence on China and fearful that Beijing wants to encroach on Pyongyang’s autonomy. For all these reasons, Kim may see a continued US troop presence in the South as a counterweight to China.

A United Front of Opposition in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo

The real-world prospects of a US troop withdrawal from South Korea, even if North Korea’s final and complete denuclearization were part of the equation, are slim at best. No influential political constituency in Washington would support this move. Maintaining a permanent US force presence in South Korea commands a solid, bipartisan majority on Capitol Hill; as a consequence, there would be intense congressional opposition to a US troop withdrawal—and probably any major drawdown in US troop strength. In fact, concerns about Trump making a sudden lurch in this direction prompted Congress to include a provision in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act preventing the reduction of active-duty US forces below 22,000 unless the president certified that the US national security interest would be served.

Resistance would be equally fierce in the executive branch, particularly from the US Department of Defense, and the uniformed military leadership, which believe that the US presence on the Korean Peninsula is critical to preventing Chinese hegemony in Northeast Asia and maintaining a credible deterrent against North Korean aggression. And while it may not matter to Trump, the US Department of State and his key national security advisors in the White House would worry about the detrimental effects of a US troop withdrawal on America’s system of global alliances as well as the potential for nuclear proliferation in the region.

There would also be strong and nearly universal opposition in Seoul and Tokyo. For both countries, the US commitment to their security is an integral component of their national defense strategies. The removal of US troops from South Korea could prompt Seoul and Tokyo to reconsider their status as non-nuclear weapons states. While this may not bother Trump, it would be the cause of intense concern across the national security apparatus and practically eliminate the president’s flexibility to actually implement a US drawdown.

Grand Bargains Have Never Worked in the Past

In the unlikely event that Trump and Kim could strike a grand bargain of troops for nukes, the prospects for full implementation of the agreement are deeply problematic. US-DPRK negotiations over the last 25 years have never produced comprehensive grand bargains. The trust deficit between Washington and Pyongyang, weighed down by an acrimonious history, is simply too large to bridge with a dramatic diplomatic proposal. Previous proposals for grand bargains have been summarily dismissed precisely because both sides have a tendency (partly justifiable) of assuming the worst intentions about the other. The Kim regime’s outright refusal to accept former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s go-for-broke sanctions relief for total dismantlement proposal last February was entirely predictable.

A withdrawal-for-denuclearization scheme would be beset by intractable implementation problems. The process would likely spur intense bickering between US and North Korean officials over the schedule and pacing of the US redeployment, the extent of Pyongyang’s nuclear rollback and its sequencing with troop reductions and the verification requirements, including the scale and scope of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s monitoring and verification authorities.


US-DPRK denuclearization appears to be headed for a train wreck, making a bold move to shake things up attractive to a president who takes pride in being unconventional and is obsessed with winning, and whose decisions are driven by his personality and politics. A troops-for-nukes trade would provide the president with an opportunity to claim success on two of his principal objectives: the Kim regime’s nuclear disarmament and ending a US security contribution in South Korea he has long derided as unfair. But it would be bad policy and even worse strategy and would face enormous implementation problems. In the final analysis, Trump would quickly discover that talking about a US troop withdrawal is much easier than executing it.

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