Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday the release of three American prisoners by North Korea bodes well for a peace deal that could eventually set the stage for a reduction of U.S. troops on the peninsula.
"That's not something that would be on the table in the initial negotiation" and would be contingent upon the denuclearization of North Korea, he said of the possibility of U.S. troop withdrawals.
"The red line, I would say, is a verifiable, irreversible, nuclear-free Korean peninsula," which President Donald Trump has said he will press for in talks expected to take place later this month with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Mattis said during a Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
"I think that stands as the goal of the negotiation we've entered into," he said.
If that can be achieved, the status of the 28,500 U.S. troops would be a matter to be worked out with the Seoul government, Mattis said, adding that North Korea would not have input on the U.S. troop presence.
Mattis was responding to questions from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, who said his view is that for "the foreseeable future, our presence in Korea is not a negotiable issue."
In the meantime, the U.S. is going ahead with an $11 million expansion of Camp Humphreys, about 40 miles south of Seoul, said Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, who testified with Mattis.
Dunford said South Korea is picking up 90 percent of the costs for Camp Humphreys and he expects the work to be completed this year.
As reported by Military.com, Mattis said at the Pentagon late last month that troop withdrawals could eventually be considered if the U.S., South Korea and North Korea reach solid agreement on denuclearization.
"I think for right now we just have to go along with the process, have the negotiations and not try to make pre-conditions or presumptions about how it's going to go," he said.
South Korean officials have pushed back on discussion of withdrawing U.S. troops.
Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesperson for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, called the troop presence in South Korea “an issue regarding the alliance between South Korea and the United States,” according to a BBC report.
Last week, The New York Times reported that Trump has ordered the Pentagon to prepare options for reducing the number of American troops in South Korea. The White House later denied the report.
At a Cabinet meeting in the White House on Monday, Trump said he would announce in three days the site of his historic meeting with Kim Jong-un, but said the peace village in the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea would not be the venue. Much of the speculation on the site for the talks has centered on Singapore.
Trump said he is being realistic about the possibilities for success.
"A lot of good things can happen; a lot of bad things can happen," he said. "I think it's going to be a very successful deal. I think we have a really good shot at making it successful, but lots of things can happen."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.