The president-elect has committed to defend South Korea under the existing security alliance pact. Trump's pledge appears to backtrack warnings made during the campaign that he may withdraw US troops in the Asia-Pacific.
During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump warned he was willing to withdraw US military stationed in South Korea unless Seoul sharply raise its share of the deployment costs.
On Thursday, however, it seemed Trump had eased his isolationist foreign policy stance towards the Asia-Pacific region, following talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
The South Korean Blue House reported that the Republican president-elect pledged his commitment to defend South Korea under the existing security alliance during a 10-minute phone call with Park. There are currently some 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea as part of a combined defense against neighboring North Korea.
The North's history of testing the will of a new US administration, particularly during the transition phase, prompted Park to ask Trump to join in the efforts to change Pyongyang's leadership and use deterrence against the Kim Jong-un regime.
According to official reports, Trump agreed, saying: "We will be steadfast and strong with respect to working with you to protect against the instability in North Korea."
North Korea: denuclearization an 'outdated illusion'
Pyongyang quickly responded to the reports, warning that the incoming Trump administration would have to deal with a "nuclear state."
"If there is anything the Obama administration has done... it has put the security of the US mainland in the greatest danger," an editorial in the ruling party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said. "It has burdened the new administration with the difficulty of facing the Juche nuclear state," referring to the North Korean ideology generally translated as "self-reliance."
The US has always maintained that it will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Under President Obama, the US has made talks with Pyongyang a conditional step towards reaching a tangible commitment denuclearization.
Last month, however, US Director of Intelligence James Clapper labeled attempts to denuclearize the North a "lost cause."
The Rodong Sinmun editorial said US policymakers should heed Clapper's words. "Washington's hope for North Korea's denuclearization is an outdated illusion," it said.
During his campaign, Trump indicated that he would be open to negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to dissuade the North of its nuclear ambitions. At a rally in Atlanta last June, Trump told his supporters: "If he came here, I would accept him."
Trump's Asia-Pacific u-turn?
Trump's pledge to defend South Korea under the existing security alliance accords counters reflect a shift in tone.
During his presidential campaign, Trump said that, if elected, he would demand that South Korea and Japan raise their share of the cost for US deployment on their territories, or he would otherwise be willing to withdraw. "We get paid nothing, we get paid peanuts" for deploying troops in the Asia-Pacific region, he told US media.
Under the current five-year-cost sharing pact between the US and South Korea, agreed in 2014, Seoul pays 40 percent of the total costs, some $867 million subject to inflation.
However, Seoul estimates the cost to be much higher when considering the vast amount of land occupied by US forces, including large areas in the center of the capital.
South Korea's Defense Ministry spokesman, Moon Sang-gyun, reiterated this stance on Thursday, saying that the country had paid its fair share of maintaining US deployment. Its contributions have been recognized by the US government and Congress, he said.
Trump's policy agenda
Despite winning the presidential election, Trump has yet to outline a foreign policy direction for the Asia-Pacific region, and beyond.
On Wednesday, Trump and his senior aides met at Trump Tower in New York to begin the transition to the White House. Rumors abound regarding the president-elect's choices for his administration. According to a source close to the campaign, the favorite for the position of secretary of state is former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich's foreign policy track record suggests that, unlike Trump, he is a military interventionist and a free-trader. In the 1990s, Gingrich urged the US to intervene in the war in Bosnia and to take a harder line against Serbian aggression towards Muslim forces.
More recently, he came out in support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and argued in favor of providing assistance to Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
As house speaker from 1995-1999, Gingrich also lobbied hard for the NAFTA free trade agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico (described by Trump as the "worst deal ever"), and also advocated expanding trade with China.
dm/kms (AP, AFP, Reuters)