The US says there will no change in “bilateral defense posture” with South Korea despite North Korea's recent diplomatic outreach and its move to rebuild ties with Seoul.
The announcement by the White House came after US President Donald Trump's new national security adviser John Bolton met with his South Korean counterpart Chung Eui-yong in Washington on Friday.
The two sides, it said, discussed the much anticipated meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as well as preparations for an official visit to Washington by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in on May 22.
On Thursday, a New York Times report said Trump was seeking options to reduce the number of American forces based in South Korea, currently put at 28,500 but Bolton angrily dismissed the report as “utter nonsense”.
The issue was first raised earlier in the week by a South Korean presidential adviser following a historic signing of a peace declaration between Moon and Kim.
Blue House presidential adviser and academic Moon Chung-in stated in a newspaper column that the continued presence of the huge US military contingent in South Korea would be difficult to justify in case a peace treaty was signed with Pyongyang.
The column, however, prompted a swift rebuttal by a Seoul’s presidential spokesman who insisted that the US military presence in the Asian country will continue and would be unrelated to any peace treaty with the North.
“US troops stationed in South Korea are an issue regarding the alliance between South Korea and the United States. It has nothing to do with signing peace treaties,” said Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom on Wednesday.
The New York Times, however, said US officials also acknowledged that a peace treaty between the two Koreas could diminish the need for the American forces in South Korea.
The development came as Trump announced on Friday that the date and location of his unprecedented meeting with North Korea’s Kim had been set and would soon be announced.
Local reports said the demilitarized zone or DMZ between North and South Korea, as well as Singapore are among the top choices being considered for the venue of the summit.
The Peace House at the DMZ was the site of the last month’s meeting between Kim and President Moon.
Trump said at the National Rifle Association's annual convention in Dallas on Friday that he had toned down his rhetoric in anticipation of the talks after labeling Kim "Little Rocket Man" last year and threatening him with "fire and fury."
"I won't use the rhetoric now," he added, noting: "Now I'm trying to calm it down a little bit."
According to US press reports, Washington is also looking into reports that three Americans arrested in recent years in North Korea had recently been relocated from a labor camp to a hotel near Pyongyang, amid growing expectations that they will be released prior to the summit.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said if Pyongyang were to free the three Americans, "We certainly would see this as a sign of good will" ahead of the Trump-Kim summit.
South Korea, China discuss ties
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in discussed bilateral ties and peace developments on the Korean Peninsula during a phone conversation on Friday.
Xi said Beijing pays great attention to its bilateral ties with Seoul and is willing to enhance communication with South Korea, deepen pragmatic cooperation, and promote cultural exchanges so as to steadily move bilateral relations forward in the interest of both sides.
Xi pointed out that relations between the two countries maintain a good momentum of development, and agreements of the two leaders have been gradually implemented.
Moon said in turn that he is delighted at the implementation of the agreements and that South Korea is committed to pushing forward the development of strategic partnership.
He further added that Seoul hopes to maintain high-level exchanges with China on the situation of the Korean Peninsula.