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PoliticsSouth Korea

South Korea, US talk troop costs amid Trump fears

March 13, 2024

Both Washington and Seoul aim to lock in an agreement on how much South Korea will contribute out of concern that Donald Trump could return to the White House.

South Korean and US military vehicles are seen at a military training field in the border city of Yeoncheon
Thousands of US soldiers are stationed in South Korea, which is one of Washington's staunchest allies Image: Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

Seoul and Washington have made early progress in talks on sharing the financial burden of US military units stationed on the Korean Peninsula, with both sides reportedly keen to bring forward the discussions out of concern that a future Republican administration in the US would dramatically ramp up its financial demands and undermine the security alliance.

"It is clear that [US President Joe] Biden and [South Korean President] Yoon Suk-yeol really want to lock a new SMA [Special Measures Agreement] in early as there is a lot of anxiety in Seoul that Donald Trump could return to the White House and possibly bring back the chaos and disorder of his first administration," Dan Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, told DW.

A $5 billion bill

While president, Trump insisted that the approximately $1 billion (€910 million) that South Korea contributed to the cost of stationing US troops on the peninsula was inadequate and instead set an annual figure of $5 billion. If Seoul declined to meet that target, Trump hinted, he would pull US units out of the country.

Trump used similar tactics in negotiations with Japan, which also hosts a large number of US military assets, as well as NATO member states.

Is the Indo-Pacific entering new era of security alliances?

The South Korean government, however, managed to drag the discussions out until Trump was defeated in the November 2020 presidential election and signed a replacement agreement with the new Biden administration four months later. Neither side has confirmed the figure, but it is believed to have increased to $1.2 billion a year.

"There are plenty of people who say that South Korea should be paying more for its own defense and I actually agree with that," said Pinkston. "But Trump failed to take into account the amount that Korea contributes by paying for all the electricity used by US forces here, the land used for military drills, the salaries of civilian workers on the bases and so on.

"Trump failed to understand that it is actually cheaper for the US to have these troops based here in Korea than to ship them back to the US and have them sitting in bases there," he said.

"He also failed to factor in the intangibles at the heart of the alliance that benefited the US, such as support from Korea in cyber warfare, anti-piracy operations around the world, counter-terrorism campaigns, support for Washington in the UN and others," he added.

Transactional relationship

Accounts of White House insiders during the Trump administration, including in memoirs by then-National Security Advisor John Bolton and Mark Esper, who only lasted 17 months as Trump's secretary of defense, suggested that Trump saw the security relationship with Seoul and other allies as purely transactional and failed to grasp the security implications of going ahead with his threat to withdraw US military support.

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Having a new six-year agreement in place before November will make it harder for Trump to use the same tactic to force Seoul to buckle to his demands.

Seoul has named Lee Taw-woo, a career diplomat, to head the South Korean delegation to the talks. He will hold a series of discussions with Linda Specht, senior adviser and US lead negotiator for security agreements in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, the Joongang Ilbo reported.

No date has been set for the first meeting but it is expected to take place soon.

Ahn Yinhay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul, said Biden has his own politically motivated reasons for bringing forward the talks on the financial burden that South Korea must shoulder for US troops.

"All the reports are pointing out that the discussions are taking place early because of Trump, but I also believe that Biden wants to be able to show the US a diplomatic achievement and to underline the importance of Washington's alliances in the run-up to November," she told DW.

"I still expect the US to ask for more money this time, but Seoul will pay as there is deep concern here about an isolationist, MAGA-driven, US-first government in Washington again and the impact that will have on security in Northeast Asia," she added.

What's behind new tensions between North and South Korea

Security challenges in Northeast Asia

And while US troops are facing North Korean units across the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula, Ahn points out that the primary challenge to security and stability in the region comes from China.

"North Korea is a problem, of course, but the most important function of US troops in South Korea is to deter China and to stop Beijing from becoming more powerful in Northeast Asia," she said. "If a future US government decided to withdraw its troops, then that would leave a vacuum."

The issue of US forces in South Korea is not a particularly significant factor in the upcoming general elections in either country, with the citizens of the South due to vote in less than one month, Ahn pointed out, although a victory for Trump could have far-reaching consequences.

"US forces here are a deterrent and it is more effective and much cheaper to have them here than in the US," she said. "At the moment, both sides agree it is best that they stay where they are."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea