NYT: Trump asking about troop cuts in South Korea. Bolton: "Utter nonsense"

If so, Kim Jong-un won’t be alone in trying to give away leverage before the big summit meeting — but don’t bet on this yet. According to the New York Times, Donald Trump has returned to his earlier skepticism about security costs in South Korea and has asked the Pentagon to develop options for a draw-down. The idea, allegedly, is to play hardball — but with Seoul rather than Pyongyang:

Reduced troop levels are not intended to be a bargaining chip in Mr. Trump’s talks with Mr. Kim about his weapons program, these officials said. But they acknowledged that a peace treaty between the two Koreas could diminish the need for the 28,500 soldiers currently stationed on the peninsula.

Mr. Trump has been determined to withdraw troops from South Korea, arguing that the United States is not adequately compensated for the cost of maintaining them, that the troops are mainly protecting Japan and that decades of American military presence had not prevented the North from becoming a nuclear threat.

His latest push coincides with tense negotiations with South Korea over how to share the cost of the military force. Under an agreement that expires at the end of 2018, South Korea pays about half the cost of the upkeep of the soldiers — more than $800 million a year. The Trump administration is demanding that it pay for virtually the entire cost of the military presence.

The timing on this would be … insane, right? Trump’s either got Kim up against the ropes by using a maximum-pressure strategy and might pull off the biggest diplomatic and strategic coup since the end of the Cold War, or Kim’s playing games — which would then require even more pressure. Trump won’t know until at least after his summit meeting with Kim. So why signal a drawdown now over a tiny fraction of the Pentagon’s budget, something around 0.1% of all defense spending each year?

The simplest answer may be that Trump’s not signaling it at all. New national security advisor John Bolton wants everyone to know that the NYT report is “utter nonsense”:

The administration has denied reports from the NYT before only to later find out that they were accurate. Rex Tillerson’s long goodbye is a case in point. And Trump has tried playing hardball with Seoul over the costs of our umbrella defense before, or at least openly discussed their need to pony up more cash for our efforts. That, however, was mostly as leverage in pursuit of a renegotiated free-trade agreement, an effort that concluded in March just as the opportunity with North Korea opened up.

Put simply, it’s a lot easier to believe Bolton in this case, although Defense Secretary James Mattis hinted that a “reconfiguration” might be worth considering as part of the process:

Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Kim injects an unpredictable new element. His enthusiasm for the encounter — and the prospect of ending a nearly 70-year-old military conflict between the two Koreas — has raised concerns that he may offer troop cuts in return for concessions by Mr. Kim.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis added to those concerns last Friday when he suggested that the future of the American military presence might be on the table.

“That’s part of the issues that we’ll be discussing in negotiations with our allies first, and of course with North Korea,” he said. “For right now, we just have to go along with process, have the negotiations and not try to make preconditions or presumptions about how it’s going to go.”

South Korea, however, has already made it a precondition. They say talks of US troop reductions have nothing to do with the talks with Kim, and that US troops are needed for reasons other than Pyongyang:

“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 Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for the presidential Blue House, citing President Moon Jae-in.

The Blue House was responding to media questions about a column written by South Korean presidential adviser and academic Moon Chung-in that was published earlier this week.

Moon Chung-in said it would be difficult to justify the presence of US forces in South Korea if a peace treaty was signed after the two Koreas agreed at a historic summit last week to put an end to the Korean conflict.

However, Seoul wants the troops to stay because US forces in South Korea play the role of mediator in military confrontations between neighboring superpowers like China and Japan, another presidential official told reporters on condition of anonymity earlier Wednesday.

So what’s the answer here? The Pentagon has surely gamed out various “reconfiguration” strategies in the past. Perhaps the White House wanted them to update the plans in light of diplomatic developments, which would seem reasonable. Given how much credit Trump has given himself for his “maximum pressure” strategy, though, it seems doubtful that he’s keen to lighten up now.