Home/Daniel Larison/The Shakedown of South Korea Has Failed

The Shakedown of South Korea Has Failed

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President , Donald Trump in November 2017. By Korea Culture and Information Service/Public Domain

The Trump administration’s attempt to strongarm South Korea into a large increase in spending on the basing of U.S. troops has failed:

Trump, they say, already rejected what was probably Seoul’s best offer ahead of its mid-April parliamentary elections – an increase of at least 13% from the previous accord, two of the officials said.

That offer and decision to reject it by the U.S. president, the details of which have not been previously reported, leaves the United States and South Korea at an impasse, even as outbreaks of the coronavirus threaten to undermine U.S.-South Korean military readiness for any potential conflict with North Korea.

The impasse described in the report is the latest example of how the Trump administration’s inflexible maximalism always leads to diplomatic failure. South Korea was willing to offer a significant increase, but because it was not the exorbitant sum of a five-fold increase in spending that the president initially demanded he wouldn’t accept. No government is going to agree to a 500% increase in cost-sharing all at once, and this has always been a non-starter for South Korea. It is also extremely unpopular with the South Korean public.

As usual, the all-or-nothing approach to negotiations leaves the U.S. coming away with nothing. The administration’s shakedown of an ally was ill-advised from the start, but in addition to straining relations with Seoul unnecessarily the administration can’t even point to any gains for the U.S. The president’s made a preposterous demand that the other government would never agree to, and then refused to compromise on that demand no matter what. This hard-line posturing was no more effective with South Korea than it was with Iran or North Korea in the past. Because the president wrongly assumes all relationships are zero-sum, he uses any concession on the U.S. side as proof that an agreement is a bad one, and so he is incapable of successfully concluding any agreements with allies or adversaries.

The practical effect right now is that thousands of Korean workers on U.S. bases have been furloughed for the first time:

One of the most tangible results of the breakdown in the talks has been the roughly 4,000 South Korean workers on U.S. bases furloughed as a result of the failure to reach a deal by an April 1 deadline. The United States says it needs the South Korean cost-sharing contributions to help pay their wages.

Abraham Denmark, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, said this was the first time furloughs had been carried out since the alliance was created in 1953.

The top commander of American forces in South Korea described the furlough as “unthinkable” and “heartbreaking,” but it was much harder to avoid once the U.S. insisted on an unreasonably large sum from South Korea. The fault for the furloughs lies with the excessive demands from Washington. The absurd thing about this impasse is that South Korea is one of the best allies in terms of providing for their own defense and helping to pay for the cost of U.S. troops. There are many examples of allies and clients that genuinely do “free-ride” on U.S. protection and skimp on their own military spending, but South Korea isn’t one of them. It’s not entirely clear what has motivated the administration’s special animus towards South Korea, but it is an ongoing problem that is undermining the alliance and creating considerable ill-will in Seoul towards the U.S.

Nothing could be worse for the cause of burden-sharing than hectoring one of our most responsible allies and letting the worst free-riders get away with doing as little possible.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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