“Nothing says I love you like a shakedown,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor at MIT, summarizing South Korean anger and uncertainty over the president’s latest gambit. Donald Trump wants to hike the price of keeping U.S. troops in South Korea by 400 percent and the Koreans, not surprisingly, are angry and humiliated.
If Trump is angling to remove troops from the Korean peninsula, he could accomplish that without losing a vital ally in a strategically important part of the world. And with Kim Jong-un in North Korea breathing fire and brimstone, Trump’s timing is particularly bad.
In the US, congressional aides and Korea experts familiar with the talks say the President’s $4.7 billion demand came out of thin air, sending State and Defense Department officials scrambling to justify the number with a slew of new charges that may include Seoul paying some costs for US personnel present on the peninsula and for troops and equipment that rotate through.
Negotiations are underway as North Korea threatens to step up its weapons development, deepening Seoul’s anxiety. On Thursday, Pyongyang condemned US-South Korean joint military exercises, saying it was “enraged” and threatening to respond with “force in kind.”
North Korea has already launched 24 missiles this year, each a violation of UN resolutions, to match the country’s previous annual record for firing off projectiles that threaten South Korea and Japan, according to Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Trump thrives on chaos but this move almost seems punitive. Certainly, the president is correct in wanting a fair payment for the services provided by U.S. troops to the national security of South Korea. But when you have to start making up charges — like a doctor trying to cheat Medicare — it’s not only unfair, it’s humiliating. And you don’t have to be a scholar of the Far East to know that humiliating the government of South Korea is not the way to win friends and influence people.
“There are a lot of hard feelings,” Klingner said of South Korean views of the US right now, adding that “people are questioning the viability of the US as an ally.”
That’s being driven in part by US acquiescence to North Korea’s missile launches, which “is raising angst… about whether the US is a reliable ally,” Klingner said. “The exorbitant push to further increase the US demand for the cost of stationing US forces overseas is adding to that.”
Scott Snyder, director of the US-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the extreme nature of the price hike is creating “worry that Trump is doing this as a pretext for withdrawal” of US troops.
In the end, that may be the president’s goal. He has said on numerous occasions that U.S. troops shouldn’t be there and rather than announce a withdrawal, he may be goading the South Koreans into ordering us out.
An American pullout would be a godsend to Kim Jong-un. Trump’s problem is that war on the Korean peninsula between North and South would be a horrific calamity — a humanitarian disaster unseen since World War II. And, of course, it would involve China and Japan eventually, bringing the world to the brink.
A negotiated pullout would be far more satisfactory if Trump wanted to leave. But blowing up the peninsula in a pique of American pride would be stupid and foolish.