The Last Time the United States Sought to Withdraw from South Korea

Robert E. Kelly

President Donald Trump has hinted for years that he is dissatisfied with the U.S. alliance with South Korea. Will he try to withdraw troops from South Korea if he is re-elected? Former President Jimmy Carter tried to do so but failed in the face of heavy bureaucratic and congressional resistance. Would Trump want to take up such a fight? And does he have the persistence to push it through?

Trump has been a tough critic of South Korea since nearly the beginning of his presidency. Trump has repeatedly criticized U.S. allies, including but not limited to South Korea, for free- or cheap-riding. Trump wants Seoul to bear nearly the entire cost of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). He has complained about the cost of U.S. military exercises with the South Korean army. He has often framed these complaints in aggressive, mercenary terms, where U.S. security allies “owe” the U.S. payment, otherwise the United States is being “ripped off.”

Trump also called the South Korean president an “appeaser” in his 2017 rhetorical war campaign against the North. He has cozied up to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and he has tacitly sided with Japan in South Korea-Japan trade war. I now hear fairly regularly on the East Asian conference circuit that Trump, if re-elected, might seek to withdraw the U.S. military from South Korea, perhaps in the context of a larger peace deal with the North.

Jimmy Carter made a similar effort in the late 1970s that offers two lessons for Trump should he seek to do this:

First, the core problem Carter faced was his inability to state a clear strategic reason for the retrenchment. Indeed, it appears to have flowed mostly from Carter’s great distaste for South Korea’s then-dictator Park Chung-hee. And indeed, Park at the end of his “presidency” had become a harsh, strange character. Carter also generally sought to loosen ties with U.S.-supported dictators in light of his effort to reorient U.S. foreign policy around human rights.

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