Should S.Korea Pay More Money to Mollify Trump?

  • By Kang In-sun, the Chosun Ilbo's correspondent in Washington

    November 04, 2019 12:58

    Kang In-sun

    South Korea and the U.S. are holding talks to split the costs of maintaining 28,500 American troops on the Korean Peninsula, and up to W6 trillion in additional expenditures for the South are at stake (US$1=W1,167). Opinions are divided even in Washington over how the cost-sharing talks will pan out if the threat of a complete U.S. troop pullout is floated. Some pundits say Trump's calls for a drastic increase in South Korea's share of the costs may be just a negotiating tactic, but others doubt that he is bluffing.

    The Moon Jae-in administration made a mistake last year by accepting a U.S. proposal of a smaller increase provided it would only last a year, instead of three to five years Seoul had been demanding. The government, which wanted to keep the expense tab at below W1 trillion, agreed to pay W1.034 trillion, less than W1.15 trillion the U.S. asked for, but it risked the constant threat of further increases.

    It was clear as daylight that the Trump administration would present a much higher cost burden for the South next time. If the Moon Jae-in administration had read the runes correctly and striven to extend the validity period of the agreement, South Korea could perhaps have avoided becoming the poster boy of Trump's cost-saving boasts.

    The U.S.-South Korea alliance is littered with other prickly issues that could explode any minute. Pressured by Trump, South Korea relinquished its developing-nation status at the World Trade Organization. Within this month, a decision will be reached on U.S. tariffs on South Korean cars. And the U.S. is pressuring Seoul to extend an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan that expires on Nov. 22. On top of everything, North Korea is snarling at the U.S. by presenting a year-end deadline to revise its hardline denuclearization demands.

    Experts in Washington say the cost-sharing talks between the U.S. and South Korea are the most serious problem for the two allies, and some worry about the very future of the alliance. The reason is simple. The cost-sharing issue is Trump's top priority, and there is no telling how far he is willing to go to win.

    U.S. presidential elections are due next year, and Trump might find it easier to score a political victory by boosting South Korea's expense burden than on focusing on negotiations with a country as fickle as North Korea. Savings for U.S. taxpayers will surely be a handsome trophy Trump could present to voters. And the outcome of negotiations with South Korea will impact similar negotiations with other U.S. allies. The threat of automobile can also be used as tools to pressure Seoul to pay more. Trump will use whatever it takes to gain the upper hand in negotiations.

    Trump views the U.S.' relations with its allies purely in money terms. That is why he threw the Syrian Kurds under a bus recently while sending 3,000 more troops to Saudi Arabia, which presented him with its usual gift of buying more American arms and an energy cooperation deal to boot. Despite vehement international criticism, Trump ditched the Kurds, but left U.S. troops in the region to protect oil wells.

    South Korea may end up with jaw-dropping expenses once the cost-sharing talks conclude, but that will still leave more problems unresolved in the bilateral alliance. Will the increased cost really strengthen the alliance? Money is all Trump can think about, so calculating the effect of spending it is crucial to South Korea. The government is extremely agitated over the nuts and bolts of the U.S.' cost-sharing demands, but it needs to consider whether spending that money, painful as it may be, can increase bilateral trust and boost the U.S.' sense of responsibility to its ally.

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