Experts no longer rule out the possibility of U.S. President Donald Trump scaling back the American military presence on the Korean peninsula.
Trump questioned the advantage of keeping U.S. troops in South Korea as the two allies are deep in their disagreements over the cost-sharing deal for American military presence.
While speaking to reporters in London where he was attending a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit on Tuesday, Trump said continuing the U.S. military presence in its current state is up for debate.
"If we're going to do it, I think they should burden share more fairly," said Trump.
Experts said Trump's remarks should be taken seriously, even though they think the remarks are largely a negotiating tactic to make Seoul pay a hefty hike in its share of defense costs.
The U.S. asked South Korea to pay approximately $5 billion to cover the cost of continuing to station about 28,500 troops on the Korean peninsula.
"It could be a bargaining approach, but I think it's credible enough that it has to be taken seriously," said Michael O'Hanlon, a research director at the Brookings Institution.
Evans Revere, a former State Department official who has had negotiated with North Korea extensively, said, "I hope it's a negotiating tactic."
He continued, "But once again, [Trump] is the president of the United States, and when he says things like this we need to pay careful attention to them. And we need to call him out when he says things like this."
The U.S. is demanding a five-fold increase from about $900 million South Korea agreed to pay for this year. The fourth round of negotiations for next year's cost-sharing deal began Tuesday in Washington, after failed talks last month. This year's Special Measures Agreement will expire at the end of this month.
Rear Adm. Jeffrey Anderson, deputy director for political-military affairs for Asia on the Joint Chief of Staff, said he is not aware of any discussions on troop reduction.
"I know of no discussions within the Pentagon that talks about any type of drawdown in, reduction of force or anything like that," Anderson said Wednesday. "That said, we're always assessing the effectiveness of our organizational structure."
O'Hanlon gave credence to Trump's comments because he thinks troop reduction could be "harmful" but "not be disastrous."
He said downsizing would require pulling out a large number of aircraft and reducing logistical capabilities in addition to cutting ground units. Combined, the moves would "make it hard to reinforce in the time of war." However, he said the reduction "would probably not lead to complete deterrence failure."
Christopher Hill, a chief U.S. negotiator in nuclear talks with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, is wary that Trump's remarks, whether as a negotiation tactic or serious consideration, will bolster North Korea's escalating threats against the U.S. aimed at ending what Pyongyang sees as its "hostile policy."
"It's emboldening to the North Koreans," said Hill. "What they would like to see from the U.S. side is a reduction of U.S. troops. I think that is increasingly part of their definition of ending 'hostile policy,' which also includes, of course, U.N. sanctions [relief]. So I think this is playing into North Korean hands."
As denuclearization talks remain stalled, North Korea recently increased repetitions of its ultimatum that the U.S. has until the end of this year to end its "hostile policy" and come up with an offer acceptable to Pyongyang.
North Korea has not specified what it means by "hostile policy," but has long viewed the U.S. military presence and joint military drills it holds with South Korea as a threat to its regime.
North Korea demanded "the U.S. drop out of the drill or stop it once and for all," after the U.S. postponed a military exercises with South Korea in November to facilitate talks.
Revere said Trump's remarks probably were also "well received" by Beijing because "China shares the North Korean goal of seeking to eliminate the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula."
Experts said no matter how seriously Trump is considering the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea, it will be unlikely as the attempts will be met with the kind of objections that marked Trump's order to withdraw U.S. military from Syria in early October.
"The reaction of former officials, current officials, military officials, and national security experts in the United States would be even more powerful if the president were to try to unilaterally withdraw U.S. troops in the Korean peninsula and reduce or end our military presence there," Revere said.
After mounting criticism, Trump reversed his course in October and had U.S. troops remain in Syria to guard oil fields. The U.S. troops were in Syria to fight with the Kurds against Islamic State, and the counterterrorism operation resumed in November.
Christy Lee contributed to this report from VOA's Korean Service.