SEOUL, South Korea — Defense Secretary James Mattis said Thursday that U.S. troops now in South Korea will be staying there, regardless of any continued progress with denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
“The U.S. commitment to the ROK [Republic of South Korea] remains ironclad,” Mattis said prior to meeting with South Korean defense minister Song Young-moo. “And this includes maintaining the current U.S. force levels on the Korean peninsula.”
The U.S. currently has about 28,500 troops in South Korea; the number often varies between 23,000 and 32,000.
Song noted the recent agreement not to hold a major military exercise in August as a mutual decision. North Korea had considered the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), held every two years, as provocative. He said there will be future steps along those lines if North Korea continues to show it is serious about peace.
“The foundations have been laid for the complete denuclearization have been made,” Song said. “I believe the meeting is especially timely and highly significant. We are standing at the crossroads of dark shadows and of comfort and the bright new history of peace and (a) bright new opportunity.”
He called the U.S.-South Korea relationship “watertight.”
Mattis said the canceling of the military exercises gives diplomats more support in their negotiations.
“The recent decision to suspend the Freedom Guardian exercise creates increased opportunity for our diplomats to negotiate, increasing prospects for a peaceful solution on the Korean peninsula,” Mattis said. “At the same time, the U.S. and ROKs forces remain united, vigilant and ready to defend against any challenge.”
Mattis is on a week-long trip to China, South Korea and Japan. He is scheduled for meetings on Friday in Japan, his last stop.