According to a congressional aide and an administration official, the Trump administration has requested an approximate 400% increase in the amount South Korea contributes to the maintenance of United States forces in Korea — the «Special Measures Agreement,» CNN reported on Thursday. (Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has refused to confirm this figure, simply saying, «we have asked for a significant increase in the cost-sharing for our deployed troops.») After last year’s talks ended with a one-year agreement, rather than the longer agreements successfully negotiated nine times starting in 1991, it was expected that the talks would be difficult — but this increase is not the start of a serious negotiation.
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the United States has already walked away from the talks, saying that South Korea was «not responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden sharing.» It is not surprising that Seoul would not acquiesce to the American proposal. The reported cost increase itself is a non-starter that sends an extraordinarily damaging signal to American allies around the world — and it is a gift to America’s adversaries.
That President Donald Trump believes America’s allies take advantage of the United States is well-established. He seems to go out of his way to mention it at every opportunity. This view predates his presidency and he has long focused on South Korea because it is a rich country, which he seemingly believes should pay the United States for its protection. As far back as 2013 he tweeted, «How much is South Korea paying the U.S. for protection against North Korea???? NOTHING!» If maintaining the American presence on the Korean Peninsula were solely about protecting South Korea, and if the United States military were a mercenary army, then perhaps the President would have a point. But the reality is this: Not only does South Korea already substantially contribute to America’s costs, but because of the existing South Korean subsidies the United States saves money through its presence on the peninsula.
Trump may believe that if the United States withdrew from South Korea, the costs associated with maintaining the servicemembers would disappear — but that’s not what would happen. They would need to be housed, fed, and supported no matter where they were redeployed, including inside the United States. In 2016 hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the late Sen. John McCain asked the nominee for United States Forces Korea commander Vincent Brooks if «it would cost more to keep those troops stationed in the United States than it would be in Korea?» to which Brooks replied, «Absolutely, Senator.» That is because, as of 2016, South Korea was paying almost half of all costs associated with the US presence, and South Korea’s contributions have increased since then. It also spends much of its defense budget on US weapons systems. There is a compelling case to be made that the costs should be split 50/50, but a 400% increase would turn the US military into a profit-making enterprise.
The benefits of remaining in Korea are not only financial. The heightened alert status of the US Eighth Army and extensive joint exercises between the US and the Republic of Korea provide valuable real-world experience for the US military and impacts America’s global readiness, especially as the wars in the Middle East have wound down. These exercises were scaled back after Trump and Kim met in Hanoi in February, and may be scaled back even further.
Trump’s vision of the US military as a mercenary force is horrifying, but even more horrifying is that he has engaged in the seemingly purposeful, if haphazard, destruction of long-term alliances. There is never a good time to damage an alliance, but this is an especially bad time. South Korea and Japan are in the midst of a bitter trade war that has led to Seoul’s ill-advised withdrawal from an intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo, not to mention the decline in beer exports from Japan to Korea.
China and Russia have started joint air incursions not only into the Korean Air Defense Identification Zone, but into South Korean airspace, resulting in hundreds of warning shots fired by the South Korean Air Force.
And, of course, noted epistolarian Kim Jong Un continues missile testing as we approach his year-end deadline for escalation if nuclear talks have not progressed.
A regional war in East Asia may seem unthinkable, but that is because our presence and our bilateral alliances have been so successful for so many years. And war in East Asia would devastate the global economy and inevitably draw in the United States anyway.
Trump’s negotiating position on burden-sharing is not unique to South Korea. Foreign Policy reported last week that the Trump administration requested a 300% increase in payments from Japan, as well. At issue is not only money, but the reliability of America as a friend and partner, and commitment of America to the international order and system of alliances among states with shared values. Seoul and Tokyo are no doubt questioning that reliability and commitment, and they are right to do so, at least as it pertains to the White House.
All of America’s formal and informal allies need to have contingency plans in place should they be abandoned by Trump. Some states may find it necessary to bandwagon with China or Russia. Others will pursue their own nuclear deterrent and spark regional arms races. And even if Trump backs down from his ludicrous demand, he has already damaged America’s reputation and insulted our allies by making it.
It is hard to imagine how any of this is in the interest of the United States.
Jonathan Cristol is a research fellow in the Levermore Global Scholars Program at Adelphi University and senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. The views expressed are his own.