U.S. President Donald Trump's key adviser says he would be open to a potential deal in which the United States removed its troops from South Korea in exchange for China persuading North Korea to freeze its nuclear programs.
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon also said there was no military option to counter North Korean threats.
His statements are provoking controversy in and outside the country because they stand in contrast to decades of U.S. policy, only confusing Washington's Asian allies amid the evolving nuclear and missile threats from Pyongyang.
Bannon made the remarks in an interview published on Wednesday by American Prospect, during which he explained his trade strategy to win the "economic war" with China.
He claimed issues related to the Korean Peninsula were just a "sideshow" in this war.
"We're at economic war with China," Bannon told the liberal media outlet. "One of us is going to be a hegemony in 25 or 30 years and it's going to be them if we go down this path. On Korea, they're just tapping us along. It's just a sideshow."
Noting that a potential deal to withdraw U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) from the Korean Peninsula in exchange for a verifiable freeze in the North's nuclear buildup seemed remote, Bannon said there was no reason not to push for tough economic sanctions against Beijing because China was not expected to do much more about the North.
He then made another controversial statement, saying, "There's no military solution (to North Korea's nuclear threats), until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don't die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons."
His comments were also contrary to President Trump's recent warning that North Korea could face "fire and fury like the world has never seen."
Leading officials in the Trump administration contradicted Bannon's comments.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) who just finished a three-day visit to Beijing on Thursday, dismissed the possibility of a USFK withdrawal.
He also repeated an earlier position that the armed forces were prepared to take military action if diplomatic and economic efforts to deter the repressive state failed.
"I've not been involved in any discussions associated with reducing or removing our presence in South Korea," Gen. Dunford said in Beijing, according to the New York Times. "If that was said, I don't know about it."
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson supported Dunford's statements, although the duo did not directly respond to Bannon's interview.
After meeting Japanese defense and foreign chiefs in Washington, Tillerson said the diplomatic campaign against Pyongyang must be backed by the threat of "a strong military consequence if North Korea chooses wrongly," the New York Times said.
The newspaper added that the deal Bannon suggested would be "unlikely."
From the South Korean side, Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo, nominee to be Seoul's JCS chairman, also said in his parliamentary confirmation hearing Friday that the military was neither considering scaling down or suspending Seoul-Washington joint military exercises, nor withdrawing the USFK.
The North earlier demanded the joint military drills be suspended in exchange for its nuclear freeze. South Korea and the U.S. rejected this.
Observers say the withdrawal of the 28,500 U.S. troops from the peninsula was a much greater demand than asking for the joint drills to be suspended. Therefore, there was little chance for the USFK being removed.
U.S. governments have also placed value on stationing troops in South Korea not only to defend the Asian ally but also to hold China in check.
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