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Trump’s push for South Korea to pay more for US troops puts Japan on notice

President Donald J. Trump and President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea at the United Nations General Assembly in 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
August 09, 2019

In a move likely to have implications for Japan, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed Wednesday that discussions have begun with South Korea to get the Asian ally to pay more for the cost of maintaining U.S. troops there.

“South Korea has agreed to pay substantially more money to the United States in order to defend itself from North Korea,” Trump wrote in a Twitter post, saying that Seoul had paid the U.S. “very little” over the “past many decades.”

“Talks have begun to further increase payments to the United States,” he wrote. “South Korea is a very wealthy nation that now feels an obligation to contribute to the military defense provided by the United States of America.”

Trump said later that he expects more money from South Korea.

“They’ve agreed to pay a lot more, and they will agree to pay a lot more than that,” he said.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry, however, said that official negotiations had yet to kick off. The two countries agreed to discuss the defense cost sharing issue “in a reasonable and fair manner” when U.S. national security adviser John Bolton visited South Korea and other Asian nations last month, the ministry said, adding that the details would be discussed at the next talks.

The mercurial U.S. leader has repeatedly criticized Seoul and Tokyo, the top American security allies in Asia, for not sharing enough of the financial burden of basing U.S. forces in the two countries. The U.S. has some 28,500 troops in South Korea and approximately 50,000 in Japan.

South Korean and U.S. officials inked a one-year interim agreement in February, under which Seoul boosted its contribution from $830 million to $924 million. That deal was due to expire in a year.

The president’s remarks came ahead of U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s arrival in Seoul for his first official visit to the South Korean capital as part of a tour of Asia and after Bolton’s recent visit.

Bolton reportedly asked both Tokyo and Seoul to significantly ramp up their burden-sharing during his trip.

The Trump administration is seeking up to a fivefold increase in what Japan pays to support U.S. military forces based here, the Asahi Shimbun daily reported on July 31, citing an unnamed U.S. government source. After his stop in Japan, Bolton had a similar message when he visited South Korea, the report said.

Trump’s latest comments and these reports have sparked fears that Esper will demand a drastic increase in Seoul’s share of the upkeep cost during his visit Thursday and Friday.

Esper met with top Japanese officials on Tuesday and Wednesday in Tokyo, but it was unclear if he had broached the burden-sharing issue.

Every year, Japan provides host nation support to offset costs of keeping U.S. troops here. Negotiations with Washington are expected to begin soon because the current arrangement will expire in March 2021. Observers say Japan is also likely bracing itself for testy discussions with the U.S. over the amount of host nation support it provides.

Trump’s apparent antipathy toward the U.S.-Japan alliance made headlines in late June, ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, when he bashed the allies’ security treaty, noting that under the military pact, which he has lambasted as unfair, Japan wouldn’t have to help the U.S. if it were attacked, though Washington would be required to come to Tokyo’s aid.

“If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III,” he said. “We will go in and protect them with our lives and with our treasure. But if we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. They can watch it on a Sony television.”

Experts say that Trump, who is also seeking a bilateral trade deal with a reluctant Japan and could use U.S. troops as leverage in those talks, has put allies in a difficult position with his transactional approach.

“Trump is willing to break the alliances, and he wants to extract as much from them as he can if the alliances are to remain,” said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official and North Korea expert who teaches at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. “So South Korea and Japan are in a tough spot. They’re paying now and appeasing the mad king in hopes that eventually somebody sane will takeover.”

But Jackson called that way of dealing with Trump both a risk and a moral hazard.

“The moral hazard is that you’re going to get extorted for all you’re worth, and that’s what’s happening now,” he said. “Appeasement makes the aggressor more aggressive. It’s a risk because we don’t know how long the mad king will stay in power, or what will follow him.”

Jackson said that if that kind of a pattern were to take root, there would be a breaking point for Japan and South Korea, where they go their own ways and the alliances break down.

“Trump would be OK with that, but it would have strategic consequences,” he said. “The solution isn’t to just pay whatever ransom Trump demands — the solution is to milk the clock, play for time.”


© 2019 the Japan Times