President Donald Trump hinted he may withdraw American troops from South Korea if the U.S. ally doesn’t concede more in trade negotiations, a newspaper reported.
The Washington Post quoted Trump as saying Wednesday in a fundraising speech that the United States was losing money on trade with South Korea as well as the military presence that is meant as protection against aggression from the North.
“We have a very big trade deficit with them, and we protect them,” Trump said Wednesday in audio obtained by the Post. “We lose money on trade, and we lose money on the military. We have right now 32,000 soldiers between North and South Korea. Let’s see what happens.”
“Our allies care about themselves,” he said in the 30-minute speech to donors in Missouri. “They don’t care about us.”
Trump’s hard line on trade issues comes at a sensitive time as the U.S. and South Korea are preparing for planned talks with the North in coming weeks over its nuclear weapons program.
The administration is renegotiating a free-trade agreement with South Korea. It also has begun talks on sharing the cost of maintaining U.S. troops on the divided peninsula.
Trump also has said he will impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, which would likely have a significant impact on South Korea as the third-largest exporter of steel to the United States.
Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank, said it doesn’t appear to be a serious threat but rather a negotiating tactic by Trump.
“I don’t think he has any real intention to pull out the troops from South Korea,” Choi said in a telephone interview. “But maybe he’d like to use the debt card.”
“It seems to me that he’s pressing the South Korean government to be more forthcoming about the trade issue and the burden-sharing issue,” he added.
However, Choi cautioned that such threats and Trump’s unpredictable personality could damage the alliance, which was forged during the 1950-53 Korean War. “There will be turbulence ahead in how we manage relations with the United States,” he said.
Duyeon Kim, a senior visiting fellow with the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, said the withdrawal of U.S. forces would play into North Korea and China’s hands.
“Only Trump knows how serious his comments are, but even if it’s intended as ‘leverage’ in trade negotiations, it’s a poor one because that’s exactly what North Korea and China want,” she said in an email.
“It’s in America’s national interest to have a military presence on the Korean Peninsula. It would also be dangerous to withdraw troops while Pyongyang has nuclear weapons and capabilities,” she added.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on Trump’s remarks.
Trump made similar claims and threats about South Korea and other allies during his campaign for the presidency.
U.S. and South Korean negotiators met last week in Hawaii to begin what are expected to be contentious cost-sharing talks as the current special measures agreement is set to expire on Dec. 31.
Some 28,500 U.S. servicemembers are based in South Korea, although U.S. Forces Korea’s public affairs office said that number routinely swells to about 32,000 with rotational units and ongoing exercises.
Seoul’s contribution for non-personnel costs for U.S. forces is roughly $890 million this year, or just under half of the total. It also is footing most of the $10.7 billion bill for an expanded Army base south of Seoul that will eventually become the headquarters for the main command known as U.S. Forces Korea.
Efforts to withdraw U.S. troops from the peninsula are not unprecedented. Former President Jimmy Carter tried to do so in 1977 but failed after he faced major opposition, including from his own top advisers.
Past administrations also have reduced the number stationed in South Korea, including the redeployment of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team to Iraq in 2004.
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