SEOUL/WASHINGTON – Just as President Donald Trump looks to make peace with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, his administration is putting fresh strain on the U.S.’s seven-decade alliance with South Korea.
At issue is the Trump administration’s insistence that South Korea accepts as much as a 50 percent increase in what it pays for U.S. military protection, including subsidizing the nuclear-capable bombers stationed thousands of miles away in Guam. The dispute caused their cost-sharing deal to lapse on Dec. 31 and, if it’s not renewed soon, South Korean civilian personnel will face furloughs like the ones that just ended in Washington.
The prospect of getting a deal before an April 15 deadline seems poor, according to a South Korean official familiar with the talks. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s negotiators have sought help from people outside the direct talks, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said the official, who asked not to be named due to sensitivities of the discussions.
A State Department spokesperson said Friday that South Korea must contribute “significantly more” than it has offered to achieve what the administration believed was a fair balance of costs. The administration is asking all its allies to offset the cost of U.S. deployments overseas, said the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The dispute is among several issues weighing on the relationship as Trump — a frequent critic of the 70-year-old alliance — prepares for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next month. In recent weeks Kim has made demands that would weaken the military readiness of the allies, including seeking the removal of U.S. “strategic assets” from the region and an end to joint drills.
“My main concern is a possible perfect storm where Trump’s desire to withdraw troops will be reinforced, if he is misled to believe he can trade them for North Korean nuclear weapons and if the allies can’t settle defense cost negotiations before the next Trump-Kim summit,” said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “This would be an immediate crisis for South Korea that trumps North Korea’s nuclear weapons threat.”
The cost-sharing dispute was among the security issues left unresolved when former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned on Dec. 20, citing differences with Trump over the value of alliances. The pact, which lasts five years and requires legislative approval by both nations, expired 11 days later.
While the U.S. doesn’t detail South Korea’s contribution to the deployment, American officials have said Seoul subsidizes about half of its local personnel costs. South Korea said it paid an estimated 960 billion won ($849 million) last year, financing the construction of U.S. military facilities and paying South Korean civilians who work at military posts.
With the deal about to expire, the U.S. suddenly requested 1.4 trillion won ($1.2 billion) from South Korea, lawmaker Hong Young-pyo, the Democratic Party’s floor leader in the National Assembly, told ruling party officials Monday. “It is undesirable that one country’s unilateral demand undermines its ally’s trust and causes divisions,” Hong said.
The real crisis won’t hit until April 15 when South Korea is scheduled to start paying civilian personnel.
“We are both very keen to get to agreement as quickly as possible,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told CNN on Thursday. “It’s still a back and forth. We are not there yet, but we are very much hoping to close the gap.”
The State Department declined to make Timothy Betts, the deputy assistant secretary of state for plans, programs and operations, available to discuss the negotiations. The department spokesperson said the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s security remained “ironclad,” a description long preferred by both sides.
The alliance serves to maintain U.S. influence in Asia and defend against Kim, who hasn’t yet committed to give up the nuclear weapons he once threatened to use to “sink” Japan and reduce the America to “ashes and darkness.” Even if the U.S. normalized ties with North Korea, a military presence on the peninsula would remain a valuable check on China’s rising might.
Trump has repeatedly expressed frustration with the open-ended troop deployment, saying after his meeting with Kim in June that he would “like to bring them back home, but that’s not part of the equation right now.” At the same time, he accepted a long-standing Kim demand and suspended major joint military exercises that the two sides have relied on to maintain readiness.
The moves have raised more doubts about the U.S. commitment to the alliance than at any time since President Jimmy Carter considered withdrawing American troops in the 1970s. Kim has sought to tie the alliance to nuclear talks, with state media saying last month the U.S. nuclear-armed aircraft and warships must be part of any disarmament deal.
The U.S. demands have even managed to bridge South Korea’s partisan divide, especially one proposal to replace the five-year pact with a deal that legislatures from both sides must approve annually. The conservative-leaning editorial page of Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea’s biggest newspapers, warned Trump on Thursday against using the alliance as a bargaining chip.
“It’s so hard to say how much of this is a negotiation tactic,” said Jenny Town, a research fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center. “But it is consistent with how Trump has undervalued U.S. alliances, and may cause more damage to the U.S.-ROK relationship as a whole than whatever monetary concessions are gained.”