Trump Wants Troops Home But Not Out of South Korea—Yet
Despite a report last month in The Wall Street Journal that “[T]he Pentagon has presented the White House with options to reduce the American military presence in South Korea,” there are no immediate plans to do so, according to one White House Senior official and another Senior Pentagon official.
In fact, there are some suspicions in Korea-studies circles here in Washington as well as in Seoul that what was described by a U.S. military officials to the Journal as a “broader re-examination of how to reposition and potentially reduce military deployments world-wide” was nothing more than that.
Furthermore, there are suspicions in the South Korean government, according to at least two senior South Korean government officials I spoke with based in Seoul, that U.S. military officials may have purposely added unwarranted emphasis on U.S. forces in South Korea in talking with members of the media to put pressure on Seoul to come to terms on a new cost-sharing agreement over U.S. forces there that has long since lapsed.
To be fair, none of this should come as any real shock, as it would not be the first time the Trump Administration has put its own sort of ‘Maximum Pressure’ on South Korea over the issue of alliance burden sharing costs, as negotiations for a 2019 cost sharing agreement were also contentious. President Donald Trump, in countless different settings and interviews, has made it clear that he sees South Korea as an economic competitor to the U.S., and that Seoul has both the ability and means to pay more of the direct and indirect costs of U.S. forces stationed on the Korea Peninsula.
Whatever the case, what was most likely meant as a pressure tactic to get Seoul to pay more, something Trump loves to seem to do in almost anything he feels is a negotiation, this time could backfire if the administration is not careful.
Trump Just Being Trump?
“This is something Trump loves to do: up the stakes dramatically with a potential rival he is negotiating with in order to get what he truly wants, what he feels he deserves, or what he feels the American people deserve—this is all typical Trump,” explained one former Senior Trump White House staffer. “The president always comes out with an open bid that seems outrageous or threatens to make a move that scares his opponent. Trump loves this sort of drama, and I would not be shocked such a story was floated to pressure Seoul. It’s a good strategy—or at least the president thinks it is.”
That same former official added: “You have to remember that Trump looks at everything through economic criteria first—not strategic or military. He sees a South Korea that is an economic juggernaut, that ships billions and billions of dollars of good and services to the U.S. every year. Heck, let’s not forget, he renegotiated the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement. His first instinct, like many Americans, is to ask why we should ‘subsidize’ Seoul’s defense when they are so economically rich thanks to U.S. ‘protection’? That question, and why he never gets the answer he wants, I think angers him and he can’t get it let it go entirely.”
Such a rational might explain why President Trump demanded at one point $5 billion per year for U.S. forces in South Korea, a massive increase over what South Korea paid in 2019 at just under $1 billion dollars. And while Washington and Seoul have narrowed the gap, both sides have yet to hammer out an agreement for 2020.
South Korea Worries about the Future:
While it seems, at least for now, U.S. forces will be staying put on the Korean Peninsula, there are those in South Korean government circles—both conservatives and progressives alike—who worry, albeit over a different set of stress points, that America could eventually decide to pull some forces out as it will in the case of Germany as part of a Trump foreign policy recalibration in a potential second term and the impact that will have on the alliance and on how North Korea would see such a move.
“This would send the wrong signal to North Korea—that the alliance is falling apart thanks to Trump and that South Korea is alone. Even just floating the idea is madness,” explained a South Korean Conservative National Assembly member, who described North Korea, as a “threat the Trump Administration does not seem to take very seriously these days.” He added that “North Korea is deterred by making any majorly provocative moves, and South Korea stays away from making a move toward building its own nuclear weapons. Why disrupt this balance over such a small amount of money? It confuses me.”
Progressive South Korean lawmakers that spoke to The American Conservative were also concerned, however, the foundations of their concerns and reasoning were vastly different. “Yes, the day will come when U.S. forces of the size that are here now won’t be needed, especially as we gain full operational control of our military,” explained a center-left National Assembly member who asked that his name not be shared. “Whatever the case, why don’t we approach any possible scale down of those forces in a more strategic way? Why have such discussions in the open public or float ideas in the media? Why not try and use those force reductions to get North Korea to reduce its forces in some capacity as well? Why are we making this about costs, why not make this about the allies over all safety and security? Surely, there must be a better way forward, as the current trends only serve to damage the alliance.”
Another prominent South Korean progressive lawmaker, also speaking on condition that his name not be used, was far more blunt: “Seoul has the means to defend itself—Trump is not incorrect in what he says about South Korea being a strong nation economically and militarily. But he should be mindful of what a troop withdrawal—especially not done without getting our input—and what would be a weakening of the alliance means. Seoul at that point can and should pursue a more independent policy towards North Korea. We would listen to Washington’s concerns, however, the days of always doing as Washington asks when it comes to Pyongyang at every major point should end. America must know that.”
2021 Will Decide Much:
In many respects, what occurs next when it comes to U.S. forces on Korean Peninsula and the state of the alliance hangs in the balance of the U.S. presidential election. While Team Trump could conclude in 2021 to decide to make sort of move to withdraw forces—although not easy thanks to existing U.S. law—members of the Biden campaign have made it clear to The American Conservative that a Biden Administration would almost surely keep the same U.S. forces in place. As one Biden foreign policy adviser explained: “Clearly there would be a policy review on matters involving the Korean Peninsula. But it is seeming almost certain no forces would leave. That seems almost impossible.”
But would Trump, also facing talks with Japan over burden sharing costs in 2022, having potentially not made a deal with South Korea going into a second term, decide to go in a different direction? While for the moment cuts seem unlikely before Election Day, if Trump does return to the Oval Office, we should not be shocked if rumors of troop cuts start circulating once more.
Harry J. Kazianis is a Senior Director at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington, D.C. based nonpartisan think tank founded by President Richard M. Nixon in 1994 as well as a Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. The views expressed here are the authors own. You can follow or contact him via Twitter: @Grecianformula.