The Perfect Storm

  • By Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and Korea Chair at CSIS in Washington, D.C.

    November 30, 2019 09:56

    Victor Cha

    The South Korean government's decision provisionally to extend an intelligence sharing pact with Japan, attention will now turn to whether the spiraling downward of Japan-Korea relations can be reversed or has simply arrested.

    But there is bigger storm brewing behind these dark clouds that is threatening to the core of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. It has three components. The first is a nuclear deal with North Korea that is almost certain before Christmas now that John Bolton, the most influential voice in the Hanoi summit's collapse, is out of the White House. This deal will probably not be a good one, in that its scope will be limited mostly to the Yongbyon nuclear facility; it will not be verifiable; and the U.S. will give too much in lifting sanctions.

    But both presidents Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump, who have both staked so much of their credibility on a deal with Kim, will not just accept a suboptimal deal, but will declare with it an end to hostilities on the Korean Peninsula in the form of a peace declaration.

    The second component of the storm will be the cost-sharing negotiations between the U.S. and South Korea. With less than four weeks remaining before the current agreement expires, the U.S.' demand for $5 billion from the South Korean government is politically impossible for Moon.

    There is a slim chance that the two sides will again opt for a one-year extension of the current arrangement, but Trump is likely to overrule this and will hold firm to the $5 billion mark. This will mean negotiations between the two allies will fail by the end of December, with the American casting the South Koreans as "ungrateful" and the South Koreans casting the American as "greedy."

    The third element is Trump's disdain for the U.S. troop presence in South Korea. According to CSIS' unique dataset, scraped from 30 years of public statements by Trump about troops in South Korea, the U.S. president has believed since 1990 that they are expensive, unnecessary and a detriment to U.S. interests because allies get a free ride off American largesse while also cheating the ally on trade. There are over 114 statements to this effect and they are remarkably consistent.

    The perfect storm in the winter of 2019-2020, therefore, is a peace deal with North Korea and a failed cost-sharing negotiation that causes Trump to act on his beliefs. Specifically, his anger over Seoul’s refusal to pay no more than a fraction of the demand, coupled with an end-of-war declaration, will cause Trump to act on his 30-year long instinct to draw down or fully withdraw forces from South Korea. As ludicrous as this scenario may sound to experts, Trump would boast that the deal with North Korea is the "best deal ever" with his good friend Kim Jong-un; that he has ended the Korean War; and that he can now "bring the boys home" because there is peace in South Korea and the "ungrateful" South Koreans do not want to pay for U.S. troops. Moreover, he will tell his political base during the campaign that this move is saving money wasted on foreigners and therefore he is putting "America first."

    Koreans in, and friendly to, this administration uniformly have responded to me that Congress will not allow Trump to pull out of South Korea. It is true that there is bipartisan support for South Korea on the Hill, but the National Defense Authorization Act that requires the president to seek Congressional approval for funds to pull troops from South Korea has not yet been passed by Congress. And if Trump does a deal with North Korea, members of Congress tell me frankly that they do not know if this single piece of legislation in the NDAA could actually stop the president, who is after all the commander in chief. This has never been tested before and could result in a Constitutional crisis.

    Under normal circumstances Seoul could rely on friends of South Korea in Washington to push back against a pullout decision. But with Seoul criticizing each and every Washington expert who expresses skepticism about Moon and Trump's diplomacy with North Korea, there is a bone-dry reservoir of goodwill to draw upon. And the few individuals who carry South Korea's water in Washington are not seen as credible in policy circles.

    Maybe there are national security-minded Republicans who will break ranks and oppose Trump like they did when Trump abandoned the Kurd allies in Syria. But this Moon government has done little to cultivate such patrons among the senators. Meanwhile, isolationist senators like Rand Paul are in Trump’s ear telling him that the U.S. should get out of South Korea because it is a rich country that can take care of itself.

    I do not want to see such an outcome. Blame will be assigned to Trump for his transactional view of alliances, and to Moon for facilitating Trump's hunger for a deal with Kim. Meanwhile, South Korea will be left with a historically crippled alliance with the U.S., and deeply dysfunctional relations with Japan. At the same time, Russia will continue to press on South Korea's airspace, and China will threaten more economic pressure if the U.S.' Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery is not removed from the peninsula. This is the perfect storm.

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