President Donald Trump said Friday that he will not consider withdrawing the 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea as he prepares to negotiate the removal of North Korea's nuclear weapons with its leader Kim Jong Un in the coming weeks.
"Troops are not on the table," Trump said at Andrews Air Force Base just before boarding a flight to Dallas, Texas. The president denied a New York Times report that he had ordered the Pentagon to draw up options for removing U.S. forces from South Korea.
Officials with the Pentagon and the National Security Council also denied the report.
The U.S. military presence in South Korea has been the cornerstone of the alliance between the two countries since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
But the rapidly evolving peace process with the North has led to suggestions that U.S. troops might not be needed if a treaty is signed. Trump said Friday that the White House and Pyongyang had settled on a date and location for the historic summit, but he did not reveal those details. The meeting has been expected to take place late this month or in early June.
Trump has frequently raised the possibility of removing troops from South Korea on the campaign trail and since taking office.
The president did not rule out the eventual removal of some troops from the peninsula in his brief comments Friday, telling reporters he'd "like to save the money" that it costs to house servicemembers there.
The New York Times on Thursday cited several people familiar with the deliberations as saying the president was seeking options ahead of his planned summit with the North Korean leader.
The officials declined to say whether Trump was seeking options for a full or partial reduction but stressed that rethinking the size and configuration of the force was overdue.
They also said the request was not intended to be a bargaining chip in upcoming nuclear talks with the North, which has long demanded the withdrawal of America's military from the South.
Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, a spokesman for the Pentagon, called the New York Times report inaccurate, adding American force posture and mission has not changed in South Korea and the Defense Department has no plans to adjust them.
"The president has not asked the Pentagon to provide options for reducing American forces stationed in South Korea," Logan said. "The Department of Defense remains committed to supporting the maximum pressure campaign, developing and maintaining military options for the president, and reinforcing our ironclad security commitment with our allies."
National Security Adviser John Bolton also denied the report on Friday.
"The president has not asked the Pentagon to provide options for reducing American forces stationed in South Korea," he told reporters in Washington.
South Korea's presidential office said Friday that a U.S. National Security Council official had told a senior South Korean official that the report was "not true at all."
The NSC official gave the reassurance to South Korea's visiting top security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, who is in Washington for talks on the upcoming U.S.-North Korean summit, according to a statement from the Blue House.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim agreed in a summit last week to work toward a peace treaty by the end of the year and to seek the "complete denuclearization" of the peninsula.