SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Thursday that his rival, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, isn't asking for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula as a precondition for abandoning his nuclear weapons. If true, this would seem to remove a major sticking point to a potential nuclear disarmament deal.
North Korea, a small, authoritarian nation surrounded by bigger and richer neighbors, has always linked its pursuit of nuclear weapons to what it calls a "hostile" U.S. policy that is embodied by the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, the 50,000 stationed in Japan, and the "nuclear umbrella" security guarantee that Washington offers allies Seoul and Tokyo.
Although Moon reported that North Korea isn't asking for the U.S. troops to leave, he said the North still wants the United States to end its "hostile" policy and offer security guarantees. When North Korea has previously talked about "hostility" it has been linked to the U.S. troops in South Korea.
It won't be until Moon and Kim meet next week, and then when Kim is to meet U.S. President Donald Trump sometime in May or June, that outsiders might know just what North Korea intends. Until then, caution is needed over the statements the various leaders are using to set up their high-stakes negotiations.
Moon and Kim's summit on April 27 will be only the third such meeting between the countries' leaders. Moon, a liberal who is committed to engaging the North despite being forced to take a hard line in the face of repeated North Korean weapons tests last year, is eager to make the summit a success and pave the way for Kim and Trump to settle the deep differences they have over the North's decades-long pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Many analysts believe that Kim sees the meeting with Trump as a way to bestow legitimacy on his own leadership and on a rogue nuclear program that he has built in the face of international criticism and crippling sanctions. Many say it is unlikely that the North will trade away its hard-won nuclear weapons without getting what it wants in return.
"North Korea is expressing a commitment to a complete denuclearization," Moon said during a meeting with the heads of media organizations in South Korea on Thursday. "They are not presenting a condition that the U.S. cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of the American troops in South Korea. ... North Korea is only talking about the end of a hostile policy against it and then a security guarantee for the country."
Trump revealed Tuesday that the U.S. and North Korea had been holding direct talks at "extremely high levels" in preparation for their summit. Trump also said that North and South Korea are negotiating an end to hostilities before next week's summit.
North Korea has long sought a peace treaty with the United States to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. Some South Koreans fear the North could use such a treaty as a pretext for demanding the withdrawal of the American troops in the South. Some worry that potential discussions on formally ending the war may distract from already difficult efforts to rid the North of nuclear weapons and apply robust verification of that process.
The armistice that halted fighting in the war was signed by the U.S.-led United Nations Command, North Korea and China. South Korea was a member of the U.N. Command but was not a direct signatory.
In their previous summit in 2007, the Koreas declared a commitment toward ending the war and vowed to pursue discussions with others. But the efforts faltered and relations between the rivals worsened after a conservative government took office in Seoul in February 2008.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.