Despite faltering denuclearization talks, U.S. President Donald Trump has been heaping praise on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, brushing away concerns by top Asian allies over recent missile launches and boasting of his “very good” relationship with the dictator of the nuclear-armed pariah state.
In contrast, South Korean leader Moon Jae-in has been feeling the heat from the tempestuous Trump as the two allies wrangle over how much Seoul should pay to keep 28,500 American troops on the Korean Peninsula. In the face of Trump’s campaign to pressure allies to dole out more cash for their presence, South Korea boosted its share by more than 8 percent this year to $924 million in what is called the Special Measures Agreement.
This time, however, Trump wants the South Koreans to pay even more.
Washington, which insists there can be “no free riders,” is now reportedly pushing for an unprecedented fivefold increase in South Korea’s contribution, causing an even bigger headache for Moon. In a broader geopolitical context, the result of the current talks could have knock-on effects for other U.S. allies in Asia — namely Japan, whose SMA negotiations are coming up next year.
South Korean officials earlier said that talks with Washington had entered a “final stage,” but newly appointed Ambassador to the U.S. Lee Soo-hyuck admitted Wednesday that the two sides were “only at the starting stages of negotiations,” media reports quoted him as saying.
That revelation appears to acknowledge that the U.S. has substantial leverage ahead of the SMA’s impending Dec. 31 expiration date.
Seoul’s concern is that a failure to meet Trump’s demands could compromise the American troop presence, which has helped defend the country against the North Korean threat for more than six decades. Those fears were amplified when Trump recently showed no qualms about pulling troops from Syria, abandoning America’s Kurdish allies, who have been a key force in the fight against the Islamic State group.
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris has attempted to assuage those concerns, telling South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo daily last month that there is “no need to worry” because America’s defense commitments are treaty-bound.
Still, Harris also confirmed Seoul’s worst fears. For the first time, the ambassador said that Trump is indeed asking for a fivefold SMA increase. Harris told the daily that from Washington’s perspective, South Korea is shouldering just a fifth of the total defense costs, and that as the world’s 12th-largest economy it should take on a bigger burden.
But this kind of rhetoric, analysts say, sends the wrong message to America’s geopolitical foes.
Andrew O’Neil, an expert on the Koreas and a professor at Griffith University in Australia, said that Trump’s position, coupled with the cancellation of its joint military exercises with South Korea, had “sent a signal to Beijing and Pyongyang that the U.S. is more focused on avoiding alliance costs than on reassurance.”
That could prompt South Korea’s Blue House to “go hard as well and argue that any arrangement that covers the complete costs of U.S. forces amounts to paying mercenaries,” O’Neil said.
For strongmen like Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping, such a scenario would be an unprecedented victory.
For Beijing, it would be a step forward in its long-sought goal of removing the U.S. military from its doorstep, and also raise the odds of Seoul gravitating closer to its orbit. As for the North Koreans, O’Neil said, “this would be about as good as it gets,” as the rift between Seoul and Washington continues to widen.
The scene is playing out in eerily similar fashion to last year, when Seoul and Washington failed to renegotiate a five-year SMA that expired at the end of December, forcing the two allies into hastily signing a one-year stopgap deal in February.
Exact figures for the cost of hosting U.S. troops are hard to come by. American diplomats in Seoul and Washington contacted by The Japan Times avoided discussing specific figures, but the total nonpersonnel cost is estimated to be about $2 billion per year. Of that, according to the Congressional Research Service, South Korea has traditionally paid more than $800 million annually.
In the face of Trump’s displeasure with the current arrangement, South Korea has worked to smooth over the differences.
Seoul argues that it paid more than 90 percent of the $10.8 billion construction costs for Camp Humphreys — the United States’ largest overseas base. It also purchased $19.8 billion worth of U.S. military hardware from 2012 through 2016, a figure that accounted for nearly 80 percent of South Korea’s total defense imports.
But foisting a dramatic increase in payments on an ally and limiting SMAs to single-year deals could be the last straw for the South Koreans.
To demonstrate that Seoul won’t be pushed around, the Moon administration appointed Jeong Eun-bo, a former vice chairman of the Financial Services Commission, as the first official selected from the financial realm to lead the negotiations.
Jeong said ahead of talks last month that he would strive for a “win-win” deal.
But Trump, who fancies himself as a deal-maker, may have already backed South Korea into a corner.
For one, South Korea is entering its political season, with the National Assembly elections coming up next year. This is putting pressure on Moon, and a misstep on this matter could erode the political fortunes of his Democratic Party of Korea.
Moon’s approval ratings are already faltering, and the South Korean president appears increasingly caught between the nation’s left and right.
While the conservative Dong-a Ilbo newspaper warned in a recent editorial that any cost-sharing row could put the alliance “on shaky ground,” the left-leaning Hankyoreh daily ripped the nearly $5 billion demand as “tantamount to expecting South Korea to pay the entire cost of the troop presence,” saying it “brings to mind the ancient practice of hiring mercenary armies.”
Experts also say that reducing the original five-year term of the SMA has made it easier for the United States to pressure South Korea.
“It is not only the amount that bothers me; it is the shift to annual renegotiations that is disturbing,” said Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the University of California, San Diego. “Rather than focusing on the variety of ways that the two parties can cooperate … the background noise will be ongoing negotiations.”
That may indeed become the case. Ahead of the Oct. 22-24 talks, Jeong alluded to the possibility of yet another one-year deal, saying “there could naturally be a delay in the process of each side pursuing its different goal.”
Indeed, Washington’s maximalist approach is putting South Korea in an impossible position. While Trump’s tactics are “nothing new” to South Korean diplomats, according to Se Young Jang, a professor of modern Korean history at Leiden University in the Netherlands, they now face a new set of problems as the White House reportedly submitted “new categories of expenses” as part of its demands.
In addition to traditional labor costs, the Trump administration reportedly now wants South Korea to pay for joint military exercises, the deployment of bombers and other strategic assets, and even costs to support on-base American civilian workers and family members of U.S. troops.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Wednesday that Washington had not requested that Seoul cover costs for strategic asset deployments, but noted a strong difference of opinion between the U.S. and South Korea.
“This is not a situation where we can tell about details of the consultations,” she told a parliamentary committee. “There is a very large gap between the two sides.”
While Seoul might accept a certain level of increase in cost-sharing, Jang says, these kinds of excessive dictums “would put the ROK government in a more difficult position to make a compromise” as the April elections loom and Moon’s signature policy of outreach to North Korea falters. ROK is the acronym for the South’s formal name, the Republic of Korea.
Bad precedent worries
But more than getting an equitable deal, the continued erosion of the alliance via Trump’s entreaties — and the precedent it is setting — remains the biggest concern.
According to Jang, the White House is unlikely to be willing to compromise with South Korea, as evidenced by the last SMA, because doing so would weaken its position in future negotiations with other allies, including Japan.
Tokyo is due to begin its SMA talks with Washington next year. That agreement is due to expire in March 2021.
“Whichever way you look at it, this is bad news for Japan,” said Griffith University’s O’Neil.
While Japan has been able to comfort itself in the knowledge that much of Trump’s cost-sharing rhetoric hasn’t translated into real-world changes, he said, the South Korean talks could have lasting effects.
“If the U.S.-ROK negotiations implode, there is a real risk the alliance as a whole will fracture if Trump wins a second term,” O’Neil said. “The only saving grace from Tokyo’s perspective may be that Trump himself seems to have more respect for Japan given his personal relationship with (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe.”
As for the next step in Seoul’s SMA negotiations with the U.S., the South Korean Foreign Ministry said Friday that the two sides plan to hold another round of talks in Seoul this month, though a specific date has yet to be decided.
While the ultimate direction of those negotiations remains unclear, one thing is certain about Trump: His 2020 re-election bid will definitely be at the front of his mind.
“Trump has no genuine interest in maintaining U.S. alliances and virtually everything he does on this will be driven by domestic political imperatives,” O’Neil said. “The bad news for Japan and South Korea is that the closer we get to November 2020, the tougher Trump’s bargaining position will become.”