SEOUL -- The prospect of a peace treaty with the North is prompting a debate in South Korea about the fate of U.S. troops stationed there, with a prominent presidential adviser questioning their role in a postwar Korean Peninsula.
In a piece published Monday in Foreign Affairs magazine, Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, raised questions about the U.S. military's presence in the South.
"What will happen to U.S. forces in South Korea if a peace treaty is signed?" he wrote. "It will be difficult to justify their continuing presence in South Korea after its adoption."
South Korean media quickly latched on to the remark, forcing the presidential Blue House into damage control mode. "U.S. Forces Korea is a matter of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. It has nothing to do with signing a peace treaty," a presidential spokesperson told reporters Wednesday, according to the local Yonhap News Agency. Chief Presidential Secretary Im Jong-seok also called Moon Chung-in and implored him to stay in line with the president's stance.
But the adviser's remark hits on a key question regarding the peace process on the Korean Peninsula. Technically speaking, the 28,000 American service members deployed in South Korea are there as part of the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty between Washington and Seoul. The South Korean government's stance is that they are not explicitly tied to the Korean War, which has not officially ended.
Still, the U.S. forces would need a new rationale to stay once North and South Korea sign a peace treaty. "Their role would change from serving as a deterrent against North Korea to maintaining the power balance in East Asia," said former South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok. There could also be talk of reducing their numbers.
North Korea has demanded in the past that the U.S. scale back or even eliminate its military presence in South Korea. There is concern it could do so again in exchange for dismantling its nuclear program, and Japan and the U.S. are wary of the growing debate about the American forces in South Korea.
The question could also impact the U.S.-developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile shield in South Korea. The system was installed ostensibly to prevent North Korea from firing nuclear missiles at the U.S. But that would no longer be a valid reason if the North abandons its nuclear weapons or signs a peace treaty with the South. China and Russia, meanwhile, suspect they are the real targets of the missile shield.
Moon Chung-in's remark drew a strong rebuke from South Korea's conservatives. The opposition Liberty Korea Party urged the president to immediately fire his adviser if the Blue House does not intend to call for the withdrawal of the U.S. forces.