U.S. troops in South Korea not 'on the table' in initial North Korea talks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. troop presence in South Korea would not be part of initial negotiations with North Korea, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Wednesday, ahead of expected talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

His comments came just hours after North Korea released three American prisoners and handed them over to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, clearing a major obstacle to an unprecedented summit between Trump and Kim.

Mattis, addressing a Senate hearing, ruled out that the 28,500 U.S. forces in South Korea could be a bargaining chip in those initial discussions between Trump and Kim.

“That’s not something that would be on the table in the initial negotiation,” Mattis said, describing the U.S. military forces on the peninsula as a “stabilizing presence.”

Trump is expected to press demands that North Korea abandon its nuclear arms program, after Pyongyang’s rapid advances in its pursuit of a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

Despite the North’s willingness to engage in talks, it is unclear what it would take for it to bargain away its nuclear missiles. North Korea has long demanded U.S. troops be withdrawn as a condition for peace.

But the United States has been at pains in recent days to stress that U.S. troops were not a bargaining chip.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said last week that Trump had not asked the Pentagon for options to reduce U.S. forces based in South Korea, denying a newspaper report.

Mattis said there was reason for optimism about the summit, which Trump on Wednesday disclosed would be not be held at the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, as many experts had expected.

Trump has previously mentioned Singapore as a possible venue.

Mattis, in his Senate remarks, did not rule out that the United States could eventually examine troop levels in South Korea as part of a bilateral discussion between Washington and Seoul, potentially concurrent with talks with Pyongyang.

“If during the negotiation this issue was to come up between our allies and us, that would be one thing - between two allies, not a matter of the negotiation with DPRK, for example,” Mattis said, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for North Korea.

U.S. troops have been stationed in South Korea since the Korean War, which ended in 1953 in an armistice that left the two Koreas technically still at war.

South Korea said last week that the issue of U.S. troops stationed in the South was unrelated to any future peace treaty with North Korea and that American forces should stay even if such an agreement is signed.

Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; editing by Franklin Paul and Jonathan Oatis