What Role for U.S. Military in South Korea in a Peninsula at Peace?

President Donald Trump has allegedly instructed the Pentagon to reduce the U.S. military presence in South Korea, The New York Times reported on Thursday, citing unidentified officials involved in the discussions.

The Pentagon has denied knowledge of any plans to address Trump's request at a press briefing. The South Korean presidential office also told reporters in Seoul that a White House National Security Council (NSC) official rejected the report.

"A key official from the White House NSC has said the report is not true at all," South Korean president Moon Jae-in's spokesperson Yoon Young-chan said in a statement quoted by Yonhap news agency on Friday, just as South Korea's national security adviser Chung Eui-yong flew to Washington to meet U.S. counterpart John Bolton.

President Donald Trump receives a briefing from military commanders at the U.S. 8th Army Operation Command Center at U.S. military installation Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on November 7, 2017. Trump has allegedly instructed the Pentagon to reduce the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The issue of what will happen to the roughly 28,500 troops stationed on the peninsula will continue to be a pressing matter despite tensions in the area diffusing, with increased diplomatic exchanges between the two Koreas, the U.S. and China.

Trump's ambivalence toward U.S. military presence in South Korea has surfaced in numerous reports in recent weeks. NBC reported on Monday that chief of staff John Kelly "strongly and successfully" dissuaded Trump from ordering the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula ahead of the Winter Olympics in February.

Trump has long questioned whether Seoul is contributing enough toward the protection granted by the American military. He recently discussed the topic in a speech at fundraiser in Missouri, according to an audio recording leaked to The Washington Post in March, in which he said, "Let's see what happens" with regard to the presence of U.S. troops.

The Department of Defense has repeatedly cited the "iron-clad" commitment to the U.S.-South Korean alliance, but, when asked about American military presence in South Korea last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis avoided giving a straight answer. "Well, that's part of the issues that we'll be discussing in the negotiations with our allies first and, of course, with North Korea," he said.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (center) speaks to the media as South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo (right) looks on during a visit to the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), on the border between North and South Korea, on October 27, 2017. Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

The presence of U.S. strategic assets on the peninsula is also under discussion, according to a report in The Korea Times on Friday, citing unidentified officials saying that Washington and Beijing are considering the withdrawal of the anti-missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) from South Korea.

South Korea is the country with the third-largest presence of U.S. troops in the world. Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, 40 miles south of the South Korean capital, is the American military's largest overseas base. Despite Trump's claims of South Korea not paying its fair share, Seoul contributed 91 percent of the $10.7 billion needed for Camp Humphreys recent expansion.

Seoul has made clear it does not link the presence of American troops to a possible peace treaty to formally end the 1950 to 1953 war with North Korea, seeing the U.S. military as a stabilizing force in the region. North Korea too has reportedly agreed to their continuing presence on the peninsula.

While officially taking an anti-U.S. stance, North Korea has long come to see the American military as having a role to play as a "stabilizing power," as then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told then Secretary of State Madeline Albright during their historic meeting in 2000.