President Reagan said Thursday that the United States will withdraw its troops from South Korea if tension eases on the divided Korean Peninsula, but the Administration’s top expert on Asia said later that U.S. forces will remain there for the foreseeable future because Communist North Korea continues to threaten its neighbor.
Reagan, after a meeting at the White House with South Korean President Roh Tae Woo, told reporters that a U.S. troop withdrawal in the near future is “a possibility, but it would not be one of us just withdrawing--it would be one of (being) no longer needed.”
When asked if he sees any evidence that the need for the forces is ebbing, Reagan said: “I couldn’t put my finger on some definite signs, but I can just say, seeing other areas of the world (where) tensions have lessened, if there’s a possibility of that, yes, that should happen.”
Sees Lingering Threat
But Gaston Sigur, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, later insisted that there is “no change . . . none at all,” in policy regarding the 42,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea 35 years after the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.
“You would have to have a firm belief on the part of our country and of the Republic of Korea that the threat from North Korea is over,” Sigur said. “That threat is not over. There is no indication that we have that the threat is about to be over.”
Sigur’s remarks dramatized the cautious approach of the Administration’s Asia specialists toward Roh’s recent efforts to promote a rapprochement with North Korea. Sigur said the United States supports Roh’s “imaginative policies,” but he made it clear that Washington will follow Seoul’s lead without much enthusiasm.
For instance, when asked for the U.S. response to Roh’s proposal for a six-power Korean peace conference, advanced this week in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Sigur said: “This is his initiative, and it is his to pursue. We can see some merit in it, but we have no intention of pushing it at this time. But, obviously, if it works, we’d be a part of it.”
Roh, making his first official visit to Washington since his election last December, met with Reagan for about two hours Thursday over lunch at the White House.
“President Reagan said the United States fully supports President Roh’s proposals, and we want to be as helpful as we can,” Sigur said. “We recognize (that) the problems between the north and south must be addressed by the parties concerned and that the Korean people and government have the primary role in solving them.”
Roh has proposed that he and North Korean President Kim Il Sung meet, and he has suggested other steps to ease the mutual hostility of the two countries. In an interview with the Washington Post published Thursday, Roh suggested that the United States lift its ban on trade with North Korea and join Seoul in trying to end the international isolation of North Korea.
Sigur said Reagan and Roh discussed steps that Washington is considering to open up its relationship with Pyongyang. He said that some decisions may be announced next week, but he left little doubt that the moves would stop far short of those suggested by the South Korean president.
Nothing Dramatic Expected
“We’re talking about humanitarian aspects of relationships . . . (but) there’s not going to be anything particularly dramatic in what we’re doing,” Sigur said. He said the Administration might permit “humanitarian trade” in medicines and some foods, but he made it clear that most commercial transactions would continue to be banned.
The Korean Peninsula was partitioned after World War II. Roh made his proposals after radical South Korean students demanded steps to reunify the country.