Bloated troops bill may widen US-SK rift

By Shi Yinhong Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/29 16:38:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The US and South Korea are feuding over sharing the cost of hosting US troops in the Northeast Asian nation. According to South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha revealed on January 21 that Washington has asked Seoul to pay $1.25 billion for US troop deployment in South Korea in 2019, an increase of 47 percent from $852.5 million last year. "There have been major disagreements between South Korea and the US in the process of negotiating South Korea's defense contribution," Kang said.

There are about 29,000 US soldiers in South Korea. After taking office, US President Donald Trump has repeatedly said that South Korea, where the US has stationed soldiers since the Korean War, should bear more of the cost.

As an offshoot of Trump's unilateralism reflected in slogans such as "America First," the US government has decided to scale down the cost and size of troops deployed in territory of its allies. It reflects Trump's world view and is an inevitable result of international strategic development of the US. It is also one of the demands of the US electorate. 

Based on experience, although South Korea has been dissatisfied over the cost of US troops on its soil, it doesn't have much choice than to agree to the rise in bill size. First, pro-US forces in South Korea are still strong. Second, when dealing with security and North Korea issues, South Korea has to rely on the US. Hence, Seoul will be forced to agree to the cost escalation by Washington. 

Free trade agreement negotiations are a good example. When Trump said he would revise free trade agreements with allies and partners, a new deal with Seoul was reached swiftly, most parts of which are based on US' will. For example, the new agreement removed barriers for US agricultural goods and pharmaceuticals, and increased the number of automobiles Washington could export to Seoul. Moreover, South Korea accepted a quota on its steel exports to the US. 

It has been reported that the Ministry of National Defense in South Korea declared its intention to increase the annual spending by 7.5 percent to build "independent capabilities to counter threats from all directions." But this does not signal a preparation for US troops withdrawal. In fact, Seoul betrays its anxiety about the US pullout. The US-South Korean alliance will not undergo a fundamental shift. Even if the situation on the Korean Peninsula is easing, the number of US soldiers would decline but Washington would desist from a complete pullout. Kim Eui-kyeom, spokesman of Blue House, cited President Moon Jae-in saying that "US troops stationed in South Korea are an issue regarding the alliance between South Korea and the United States" and "It has nothing to do with signing peace treaties." 

The main reason for Seoul to increase defense spending is to strengthen its military to have a political edge over North Korea if tensions on the Peninsula are further eased. 

Seoul's reluctance over increase in cost sharing of stationed US troops will not affect the basic fabric of Seoul-Washington ties. Current US-South Korean alliance will last for a while. There would not be essential changes in Seoul's dependence on Washington. But South Korean sentiment toward dependence on US military has definitely cooled down. Although the US-South Korea military alliance exists, fondness for the US will further decrease.

Other US alliance relationships from that with Japan to those with European nations have been severely affected. The US demand to pile up troops cost on South Korea will further dampen the trust of other allies.

The author is director of Renmin University of China's Center for American Studies.


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