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SEOUL—President Donald Trump’s demands for vast increases in South Korean and Japanese financial contributions to maintain U.S. bases and forces has triggered fears here that he’s eager for massive troop withdrawals from the territory of these U.S. allies. And while the scale and the history are very different, the capricious way that Trump ordered U.S. forces pulled out of northeast Syria in October is seen as a cautionary example.
Although some U.S. troops reportedly are back in action in Syria, Trump created murderous confusion when he suddenly decided to pull about 1,000 of them out on Oct. 6, betraying longtime Kurdish allies beleaguered by the Turks, Syrians, Russians, and ISIS guerrillas. The overwhelming concern here is that the impetuous and ill-informed action in Syria was a rehearsal for much greater reductions in U.S. forces in northeast Asia. Trump has questioned the need for them, and their cost, for many years.
“My Korean colleagues worry that the Syria withdrawal could also be applied to Korea, and potentially with similar very negative consequences,” says Bruce Bennett, senior researcher at RAND Corp. “Actions like the Syria withdrawal cause our allies to worry that they could be next, and that worry undermines the strength of our alliances.”
The U.S. role in Korea was put to the test last week when James DeHart, chief U.S. negotiator on the bases, staged a precipitous walkout after two hours getting nowhere in a meeting here with South Korea’s negotiator.
South Korea contributed approximately $900 million this year to the bases, up 8 percent from 2018. But Trump wants to up the price to Seoul by 400 percent to $5 billion, a figure he seems to have pulled out of thin air and that the Pentagon has had trouble justifying. (As MIT Prof. Vipin Narang told CNN in a memorable remark, “Nothing says ‘I love you’ like a shakedown.”)
DeHart, Trump’s negotiator, read a brief statement saying South Korea’s counter-proposal to Trump’s demand for raising the South Korean outlay was “not responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden-sharing.” Thus “we cut short our participation in the talks” in hopes the Koreans would “put forward new proposals….”
Maybe the Trump team thinks this is just the way things are done here on the peninsula. DeHart’s remarks bear an uncanny resemblance to those of the North Korean negotiator who broke off talks in Stockholm last month with U.S. nuclear negotiator Stephen Biegun, claiming the U.S. had added nothing to the dialogue on the North’s nukes and missiles.
It’s not only the U.S. presence in South Korea that’s imperiled; bases also are in doubt in Japan, where conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is balking at Trump’s demand for a $4 billion increase in its annual contribution.
Bruce Bennett at RAND raises the question of who has military superiority in the region if the U.S. breaks its historic alliances. North Korea has 1.1 million troops plus 30 to 60 nuclear warheads, he notes, while South Korea’s armed forces, bereft of nukes, will be down to 365,000 by 2022.
“If the North is in a position of dominance,” Bennett asks, “what will the rest of the world conclude about the value of an alliance with the U.S., and what will the world conclude about the need for national nuclear weapon programs?” Such a move could well lead to “the end of effective U.S. nuclear nonproliferation efforts."
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump seemed to embrace the idea that South Korea and Japan should have their own nuclear weapons to defend against North Korea. “At some point,” he told Anderson Cooper in a CNN town hall, “we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea, we’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself.... Wouldn’t you rather in a certain sense have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?... Wouldn’t you rather have Japan, perhaps, they’re over there, they’re very close, they’re very fearful of North Korea.”
By law Trump cannot arbitrarily slash the number of U.S. troops in Korea, now about 28,500, to below 22,000 without talking to the South Koreans and proving the drawdown won’t compromise the alliance or defense of the South. Trump, however, has said repeatedly that he believes South Korea and Japan can fend for themselves and American forces are no longer needed.
The danger is Trump means what he says, but his friend Kim Jong Un is not cutting him much slack. On Monday, nine years after North Korean artillery killed four South Koreans on an island in the Yellow Sea, the North’s state media reported Kim had presided over an artillery exercise on a nearby island—as menacing as the North’s recent short-range missile tests in view of its proximity to South Korean territory but apparently not much of a worry for POTUS.
“Trump is unafraid to push to the wire and beyond on cost-sharing negotiations with Korea and Japan because he believes he has all the leverage,” says Victor Cha at Georgetown University. “If they don’t want to pay, he will pull them out.”
Cha, who served on the National Security Council during the presidency of George W. Bush, bases this conviction on what he sees as Trump’s “unappreciation of the benefits of having allies around the world.” His outlook as a businessman, he observes, leads him to “a monetization of foreign policy in general.”
Trump’s tough bargaining position throws into doubt the future of the delicate alliance relationships that the U.S. has had since the Korean War to ward off another North Korean assault on South Korea—and possible Chinese intervention, too. Backing up U.S. forces in Korea, the U.S. has 50,000 troops in Japan, including a Marine division on Okinawa, plus more air and naval forces on Guam.
“He truly believes that ‘free rider’ stuff he’s been saying since the 1980s,” says Van Jackson, author of On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War. “He thinks we’re being taken to the cleaners by our allies, he doesn’t get the security value of alliances or forward military presence, and the only acceptable redress for his grievance is maximal rent-seeking.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, on a recent visit here, said South Korea “is a wealthy country and could and should pay more to help offset the cost of defense,” but “we’re not threatening our allies over this.” Jackson, who now lectures at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, says he would be “willing to bet Trump pulls a troop withdrawal stunt sometime in the next year if South Korea doesn’t make some huge concessions.”
The issue arouses intense fears and debate among South Koreans. Not only conservatives but also middle-of-the-roaders who supported President Moon Jae-in in the Candlelight Revolution of 2016 and 2017 are increasingly disillusioned by his policy of appeasing North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in the quest for reconciliation. And the concern intensifies as the American defensive shield appears to be threatened.
At a rally Saturday in central Seoul, several hundred thousand people waving American and South Korean flags shouted slogans denouncing Moon.
There, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, the parents of Otto Warmbier, who was jailed in North Korea nearly four years ago for stealing a poster near the end of a brief tourist trip to Pyongyang, described their son’s torture before he was sent home to die in June 2017. “We look forward to working with you to solve the problem of North Korea,” said Fred Warmbier, whose words were translated over mega-loudspeakers to thunderous applause. “What we need to do is to change the regime in North Korea. That’s why we’re here today.”
In the crowd, Ahn Chang, who had been jailed for refusing to leave a government office while protesting Moon’s policies, worried about whatever Trump will do. “I am very afraid he will pull out troops,” says Ahn. “Unlike typical U.S. presidents, he’s against this whole Korean-American alliance. If he pulled out troops, we are left alone to fight.”
Ahn believes South Korean leftists have fallen for North Korean propaganda and won’t stand up against attack from the North. “The leftists are brain-washed,” he says. “We are already losing because of the lies they were telling to the people.”
Moon’s real stance, however, may be somewhat ambivalent. On Friday, his government announced it would not take the controversial step of withdrawing from its deal for exchanging military intelligence information with Japan, as it had threatened to do. A Moon spokesman said South Korea would remain committed to GSOMIA (an acronym pronounced Gee-soh-mee-ya, for General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement) for the sake of “national interest.”
But South Korea will continue to press Japan to do away with constraints on export of vital chemicals and other equipment imposed after Korea’s supreme court ruled that Nippon Steel and others had to compensate Koreans forced to work for the Japanese as de facto slave labor in World War II.
The sense is that Moon and others would not be thrilled by a U.S. decision to cut down the number of U.S. troops while North Korea shows no signs of scaling back, much less giving up, its nuclear and missile program. In fact, some analysts believe Trump would hesitate for fear of the rising power of China, which supports North Korea.
“We know Trump doesn’t want to spend money for alliances,” says Choi Jin-wook, former director of the Korea Institute of National Unification, but “he cannot withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and Japan because of China.”
But, really, there’s no telling what Trump really has in mind. “He does not seem to care about the post-World War II consensus on the U.S.-built liberal world order,” says Daniel Pinkston, a longtime Korea analyst and lecturer at Troy University. He and “a large part of his coalition view the liberal world order as ‘rigged’ or ‘ripping off the U.S.’” They would “would rather ruin it and be spoilers.”