Using U.S. troop levels in the South as a bargaining chip with the North would impair fundamental and overriding American strategic interests.
The Trump administration has indicated that it may use U.S. forces in South Korea as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the North Korea over the latter’s nuclear program. Doing so might, at first blush, appear to be a sensible course of action. Washington will, after all, need to offer Pyongyang incentives for it to abandon its nuclear program. Furthermore, given the gravity of the threat posed by the North’s nuclear capabilities, particularly meaningful inducements such as a drawdown of American forces may be warranted. In an article appearing recently in The National Interest, Lyle Goldstein eloquently called on the United States to do just that, arguing that Washington must “put sufficiently weighty and shiny carrots onto the table”. Goldstein also highlighted the “many upsides of a moderate U.S. troop withdrawal from South Korea.”
If Korean geopolitics could be neatly disaggregated from the rest of East Asia, opening U.S. force levels to negotiation with the North might be advisable. The Korean Peninsula, however, cannot, of course, be disassociated from the regional environment— as the United States bitterly learned in October 1950. In this broader context, using U.S. troop levels in the South as a bargaining chip with the North would impair fundamental and overriding American strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific and would thus be a significant error.