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South Korea has rejected a demand by US President Donald Trump to pay $4.7 billion in return for hosting American troops. The staggering amount would be a five-fold increase from the previous amount of $925 million, which was negotiated in February. Traditionally, the agreement between the two allies has been renewed every 5 years, but last year both parties agreed to a 1-year extension in order to work out a longer pact. 

Historic Alliance Trademarked By Hosting Troops

Washington and Seoul have maintained an official military alliance since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Presently 28,500 American troops are stationed in South Korea. Aside from preventing North Korea from overtaking the peninsula, the accord was also designed to help contain the Soviet Union and to keep South Korea under US influence. Along with Japan, South Korea acts as an intelligence-sharing partner for Washington, making it an integral military ally.

Although Seoul likely values the military alliance as much as Washington, it did not take kindly to the proposition of forking over nearly $5 billion for the privilege of hosting US troops. Forces there have been intertwined for decades and the annual joint military exercises have become such a show of force that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has railed against them on numerous occasions. Certainly, the US has bases all over the globe and much older alliances, but there are few places where such camaraderie and shared national interests can be so clearly seen.

Cracking Down On Bad Deals

However, Trump has a pet-peeve for other states not paying what he considers their fair share, especially when it comes to the US military and economy. Look to any number of the trade disputes he started, with allies such as Canada and Japan to more adversarial nations like China. For the armed forces, the American president never felt his nation was getting a fair shake in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, floated the idea of pulling the US from it, and repeatedly demanded other member states such as Germany pay more or lose their access to US troops. So it comes as no surprise that Trump is also demanding more from South Korea. 

The Perspective From Seoul

“The two sides have expanded their understanding of each other through many discussions despite differences in their positions on various issues, and decided to continue close consultations,” said the South Korean Foreign Ministry in as statement.

It is also not the first time that Trump’s insistence for more financial support has pushed talks past their year end deadline. Last year, the parties held out until February before finalizing an agreement that saw a 25-percent increase in spending from Seoul. However, by looking at the bottom line figure in the agreement, Trump risks losing sight of the larger picture. A South Korean official told the SBS news network that Seoul spent $6.3 billion on American weapons over the past decade. Furthermore, it funded the expense of moving US troops to Pyeongtaek⁠—a $6.9 billion operation. 

Considering that South Korea’s total defense spending in 2018 was $43.1 billion, those numbers show a different perspective. Clearly Seoul is not hesitant to drop money into its partnership with the US. The general public in South Korea is overwhelmingly against the idea of paying America more. A poll of 1,000 adults by Hankook Research found only 4-percent of respondents in favor of agreeing to Trump’s funding demand. As an alternative, 25-percent approved of refusing to pay instead of continuing negotiations. 

At the same time, South Koreans value the partnership with America⁠—94 percent believe it is critical for maintaining their national security. Trump’s focus on pressuring allies to pay more for US troops presents problems not just for South Korea, but for the entire philosophy of America’s global military presence.

Turning The US Military Into Mercenaries

As Victor Cha, former director for Asian Affairs in George W. Bush’s National Security Council, argued, whereas American forces are presently viewed as security allies, they may begin to be looked at as mercenaries. 

“There is this whole question of whether Trump actually wants to make a profit off of US forces abroad, which would essentially turn us into mercenaries,” Cha said, adding “That’s not what the US military is,” Cha said. 

Not only do moves like what is currently happening with South Korea signal the US military can be bought for the right price, they also send a signal to adversaries that if our allies refuse to pay up, we will leave them. As a recent example, Trump decided to pull troops from Syria, completely abandoning Kurdish allies, to appease Turkish President Recep Erdogan. Perhaps if the Kurds or Syrian resistance fighters had offered a few billion dollars, American forces might have stayed, because that is what appears to matter to Trump at the end of the day.

Nothing Changes Thanks To NDAA

Without Seoul’s agreement to pay the $4.7 billion demanded by Trump, it is logical to question whether he will actually pull troops from the region. While he could certainly threaten to do so, the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act signed by Trump on Dec. 20 prohibits him from doing so. A provision within it dictates that the only case in which it would be permitted is if Defense Secretary Mark Esper agrees that it “is in the national security interest of the United States and will not significantly undermine the security of United States allies in the region.”

US State Department negotiator James DeHart denied the $5 billion figure as part of the US demands. 

“The figure will be different from our initial proposal and probably different from what we’ve heard from the Korean side so far,” said US State Department negotiator James DeHart. “So we will find that point of agreement.”

Even if that is true and the number is not a current focal point, it is undeniable that Trump would like to see Seoul spend more. The goal has always been to right the perceived wrongs, whether it be economic or military deals. For Trump, America has lived through decades of one-sided deals against it and that cannot continue. South Korea just happens to be next on the list of states that Trump has deemed as taking advantage of the US. 

Ultimately, even if the two sides cannot come to an agreement, little will change in terms of a US presence on the peninsula. As seen in February, they are capable of negotiating a new agreement, even if South Korea has to pay a little more to satisfy Trump’s “America first” ideology.

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