By Lee Haye-ah
WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 (Yonhap) -- The United States should keep troops in South Korea for the long term, even after the possible elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, a U.S. senator said Thursday.
The remarks by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, come amid concerns that U.S. President Donald Trump will reduce the troop presence as part of a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Trump and Kim are scheduled to hold their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, Feb. 27-28 to discuss the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons program in exchange for U.S. security guarantees.
"I think it would be a massive, monumental mistake, a strategic, perhaps unparalleled in modern time to have our troops leave the peninsula," Gardner said during a discussion at the Wilson Center. "Our overall Indo-Pacific strategy, economically, from a security standpoint, relies on having a continued ability on the peninsula."
Trump has complained about the cost of stationing some 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea and demanded the ally pay more for its defense.
Seoul and Washington recently renewed their cost-sharing agreement. The new deal calls for an 8.2 percent increase in Seoul's contribution to some 1.04 trillion won (US$920 million) over a year.
Gardner said he assured South Korean lawmakers at a recent meeting that "Congress will fight like hell against anything along those lines" of withdrawing troops.
He cited last year's defense authorization bill, which placed restrictions on lowering the troop level to below 22,000. The bill also characterized any "significant removal" of troops as "a non-negotiable item as it relates to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization" of North Korea.
Gardner was pressed on the need for troops if the U.S. and North Korea sign a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.
"If there's a denuclearization agreement reached and if it's even the most perfect sense of denuclearization -- everything is exactly what perfect denuclearization would look like -- I would hope that Korea and the United States could come to an agreement that would allow a presence to remain," the senator said. "I think continued U.S. involvement, presence, is critically important for the security of Korea and the alliance."
The details of the peace treaty would be an important determining factor, weighed in Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), the subcommittee's ranking member.
But unless the treaty covers such things as outside inspections of North Korea's nuclear sites, Markey said, it would be unwise to reduce the military presence.
"That's what ultimately Kim is trying to achieve," he said. "He's seeking to reduce the military pressure we put on him and he's also seeking to reduce any economic pressure, so he can continue business as usual to move forward without actually having to change his own internal behavior."