A senior North Korean diplomat warned in an Associated Press interview last week of a vicious showdown if the U.S. and South Korea hold annual war games as planned this month. Pyongyang is seething after the U.S. slapped sanctions on its leader, Kim Jong Un, over human rights abuses.
The U.S. retains about 50,000 troops in Japan and 28,500 in South Korea. Advocates say that has fostered peace and prosperity in a region of intense rivalries and means the U.S. is better-placed to deal with North Korea’s nuclear threat.
Although Asian allies pay about half the cost of stationing U.S. forces on their soil, Trump has said Japan and South Korea should pay more or he might withdraw U.S. troops. He’s also open to Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons rather than relying on U.S. deterrence, which could spark a regional atomic arms race.
The U.S. forces in South Korea are a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended without a formal peace treaty. Troop numbers have fallen over the years. In 1971, President Richard Nixon withdrew about one-third of the 60,000 U.S. troops there, despite stiff opposition from Seoul.
Carter who had been a submarine officer in the Pacific during the Korean War, was determined to go further when he took office in 1977.
American public opposition to military involvements abroad was running high after the Vietnam War. Also, Carter was no fan of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, who imprisoned political opponents.
In 1977, Carter signed a top-secret order to remove 15,000 troops by mid-1980 — out of a total of about 40,000 — and eventually remove nuclear weapons from South Korea, while keeping the Air Force in place.
The killer blow to Carter’s plan was a U.S. intelligence report in 1978 that North Korea had 40 percent more ground forces than earlier thought, and a two-to-one advantage over South Korea in tanks and artillery.