Is Korea Ready to Fend for Itself?

      November 10, 2016 13:32

      Foreign-policy pledges of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump have been characterized by two major themes -- isolationism and self-interest. Both could have a deep impact on the Korea-U.S. alliance, which is the sole foundation of this country's security.

      Trump hopes above all to avoid getting involved in international issues that do not benefit U.S. interests, a clean break from the doctrine America has pursued since the end of World War II and the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" over the last eight years.

      It could weaken the Korea-U.S. alliance tremendously if Trump believes there is no benefit for America in it.

      Trump is applying a purely business logic to the 60-year-old Korea-U.S. alliance. He only visited Korea twice back in the 1990s on business and has only painted a negative picture of the alliance during his campaign.

      He has called the stationing of 28,000 U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula as an "unbearable cost" for America and claimed that Korea pays for none of it. In fact Korea shoulders around W1 trillion of the costs each year (US$1=W1,150). If Seoul refuses to pay more, Trump may threaten to reduce the troop presence here.

      Still, if money is the only problem, the two sides can work things out. But if the problem is Trump's lack of understanding of the risks the peninsula faces, a slapdash attitude to complex regional security matters and contempt for Seoul's stance, the prospects could be catastrophic.

      Trump has referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a lunatic and even threatened to eliminate him, but recently he offered to meet him if Kim comes to the U.S. Experts say Trump is open to both the ideas of attacking North Korea's nuclear facilities and holding talks with Pyongyang to strike a bilateral deal. Either scenario is a serious risk for Seoul.

      The next two months will see Trump try to put together a diplomatic, defense and national security team. Seoul must quickly set up communication channels with these officials to ensure that its stance can be reflected in Trump's East Asia policies.

      Some even see more opportunities than risks, since Trump's Korea policy list is practically a blank sheet at the moment.

      Nonetheless Trump's election victory is a wakeup call for Korea to see who will defend its interests. So far it has been possible to rely on the U.S., and many Koreans have grown to see national security matters as someone else's business. This was seen in the nimbyism that greeted plans to station a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery from the U.S. here.

      That attitude is no longer tenable. Koreans must think seriously about their ability to defend themselves when the U.S. they have long regarded as a friend and protector becomes a mere business acquaintance.

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