The Debate | Opinion

US Interests Are Not Served by Making a Scapegoat of South Korea

The U.S.-South Korea SMA negotiations have devolved into a blatant shakedown. That’s bad for both sides.

By Sukjoon Yoon for
US Interests Are Not Served by Making a Scapegoat of South Korea
Credit: Photo by Spc. Alaura Lucas, 20th Public Affairs Detachment

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently published a provocative article entitled “South Korea Is an Ally, Not a Dependent” in the Wall Street Journal. The article addresses the ongoing negotiations over how to share the costs of maintaining United States Forces Korea (USFK). Unfortunately, Pompeo and Esper make use of some very misleading arguments to propose that the Republic of Korea (ROK) should contribute more to support USFK.

The Special Measures Agreement (SMA) between the United States and South Korea is far more significant than a bilateral arrangement concerning the Korean Peninsula. North Korean military threats imperil the peace and prosperity of not only South Korea, but all of Northeast Asia, and the economic and geopolitical ramifications extend throughout the world. Unstated in the WSJ article, indeed conspicuous by their absence, are the true reasons behind U.S. pressure to force South Korea to pay more: U.S. President Donald Trump’s “‘America First” principle and his simplistic and reductionist approach to U.S. alliances, in which all issues are interpreted transactionally.

What Are South Korea’s Contributions?

Current South Korean contributions to maintaining USFK fall into three categories: the wages of Korean civilians employed by USFK, the construction of military facilities, and logistics support. Since the previous SMA expired on December 31, 2019, Washington has been calling on South Korea to expand the existing SMA framework to cover additional obligations. But even before the first SMA was negotiated in 1991, South Korea provided land and other facilities and has also purchased many advanced weapons and systems from the United States to establish interoperability. The full extent of the South Korean contribution is thus ignored by Pompeo and Esper’s article, which entirely overlooks the costs entailed in maintaining a combined defense posture with the United States, not to mention the benefits to the U.S. defense industry. For comparison, consider the situation of the European Union or Japan, which can base their defense spending purely on the perceived level of threat. The argument that South Korea is now wealthy, like the EU and Japan, and should therefore be willing to pay more toward USFK, completely ignores the different situations.

The WSJ article also refers to the U.S.-South Korea alliance as a “linchpin” for Northeast Asian peace and prosperity. This suggests that the security benefits are entirely local, with the United States altruistically succoring South Korea (which, by clear implication, should be eternally grateful for this noble and disinterested assistance). It’s as if containing North Korea were of no importance for U.S. interests, not to mention the role played in deterring China and Russia by the forward deployment of U.S. military personnel on the Korean Peninsula. When the full balance of benefits and contributions for the United States and South Korea is taken into account, the attempt to impose a new framework for the 11th SMA is revealed as a straightforward shakedown. It’s telling that the U.S. president is currently being impeached for an unconnected foreign policy shakedown, and there is evidence that Pompeo and Esper are also deeply implicated in this scandal.

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What Should South Korea Contribute?

South Korea has made truly remarkable progress since escaping from Japanese occupation, both economically and politically. The WSJ article makes the specious claim, which would be laughable were it not so offensive, that the presence of USFK has “enabled” this miracle. In line with these grandiose pretensions, it has been reported that the United States is seeking to add new cost categories: demanding expenses related to troops deployed to the Korean Peninsula for nine-month rotations, for the combined military exercises between the United States and the ROK, for additional pay for U.S. troops, and for support for their families. From the South Korean perspective such an unwarranted expansion of ROK responsibilities is utterly without justification.

Even if South Korea were to accept the current demands as a reasonable contribution to defending its national security, given Trump’s past record, both in his exploitative business dealings, and in his manipulative foreign policy, who can doubt that he would immediately move the goalposts to demand ever-more outrageous contributions? South Korea is clearly aware of its wider security responsibilities, contributing to U.S.-led operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz, but what is to prevent Trump from demanding South Korean involvement in terrestrial operations in the Middle East, perhaps sending ROK forces into Syria or Libya? From an operational perspective, under the Combined Forces Command (CFC ROK/US), it seems impossible to clearly distinguish between interests that are solely and separately for the United States or for South Korea and those that are genuinely shared interests.

Is the United States Negotiating in Good Faith?

By attempting to leverage long-standing U.S. commitments for his personal political ends, Trump is, of course, thoroughly undermining the long-term interests of the United States. But he believes that his ironically named “America First” principle got him elected, and he is relying on the same short-sighted vision to be re-elected. So anything that he can represent to the U.S. electorate as a net monetary gain for the United States, howsoever simplistically this is calculated, is for Trump a desirable policy option. Trump seems to have pulled his $5 billion demand out of a hat, and his underlings understand that to keep their jobs they must scurry to do his bidding, howsoever outrageous. One only has to examine his approach to climate change, or to NATO, to realize that Trump is utterly unconcerned by the chaos he leaves behind him.

The WSJ article parodies South Korea as a whinging dependent of the United States, but a straightforward account of facts about the military-to-military interactions between the ROK and the United States gives the lie to this absurd claim. First fact: the United States sells more weapons and systems than any other country, and South Korea is its third-most important customer for these advanced armaments. Is this dependence? Surely it actually indicates complementarity between the two militaries.

Second fact: the United States spends more on defense than any other country. South Korean military expenditure ranks seventh in the world, although its economy is only the 12th largest. So who is paying for whom?

Third fact: USFK are equipped with the most advanced fighting assets, and whatever weapons and systems the United States wants to deploy on South Korean soil. Because of the Combined Defense Posture, the ROK has always allowed it. In the case of the THAAD deployment, the economic backlash from China cost the South Korean economy many billions of dollars. Is this evidence of South Korea financially defaulting on its defense alliance with the United States?

Trump regularly complains about countries hosting American troops not paying enough. For the United States, then, the SMA negotiations are all about money on the table, with operational factors and fighting readiness a very distant second. Hawks want to make an example of South Korea, and Trump anticipates that his political base will approve of his shakedown, seeing the ROK as an unimportant country (and thus a convenient scapegoat).

Why Is the United States Taking Such a Tough Approach?

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Aside from domestic political calculations, there are other reasons behind the U.S. pressure on Seoul. Trump believes that South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration is too close to China and too friendly toward North Korea. By contrast, a regular rally held every Saturday mobilizes anti-Moon factions in South Korea who are devoted to maintaining the ROK-U.S. alliance on any terms, and who support the U.S. stance on North-South relations and on North Korean denuclearization. This year South Korea will hold an election for the National Assembly, and Trump would prefer that the conservative parties regain their majority.

Also, Host Nation Support terms between Japan and United States Forces Japan will be negotiated next year, so being tough in the U.S.-South Korea SMA talks is a strategy to exert pressure upon Japan. It is also a useful way to influence the other NATO countries, which will discuss the feasibility of enhanced burden-sharing at next year’s NATO summit.

To combat this pressure, South Korea should make a tactical decision to agree to a significant increase in its monetary contribution to USFK — providing that, since the SMA has been reinterpreted as a purely transactional arrangement, the ROK will now have the freedom to treat USFK as essentially a mercenary force. South Korea can then deploy USFK as a frontline force, such as at the Northern Limit Line and the Demilitarized Zone. On these terms, the United States may reconsider its insistence on such a sharply increased contribution from South Korea, since the implications of such a blatantly financial compact would wrongfoot the United States in its upcoming negotiations with Japan and with NATO.

The Way Ahead

South Korea’s exemplary economic and political progress is entirely due to the hard work and wise choices of the South Korean people. It is ridiculous to interpret this progress as a debt due to the United States, and absurd to use it as an argument to oblige a fivefold increase in the ROK’s current contribution to USFK. South Korea faces a direct and imminent threat on a daily basis, from North Korean conventional and nuclear weapons, and as a result the country spent 3.4 percent of GDP on defense in 2019. But now it seems that the ROK-U.S. alliance is no longer a shared endeavor dedicated to the spirit of “Fighting Tonight”; instead, the U.S. troops stationed in Korea are a force of foreign mercenaries whose political masters have no loyalty beyond monetary gain and the principle of “America First.”

South Korea and the United States have never needed one another more, and they should be working toward narrowing their differences and expanding their mutual understanding. Is this the moment for Washington to insist on increasing South Korea’s annual contribution to support USFK from $870 million to $5 billion? Trump is likely ignorant of South Korea’s own domestic politics. There is growing support among younger South Koreans for a more autonomous defense policy: if the United States wants to withdraw its troops from the Korean Peninsula, then that is fine by them. How would the United States benefit from Seoul reaching out to China for a security alliance? At present this possibility seems remote, but South Korea is undeniably going through a transitional period of rebalancing its strategic stance between the two great powers.

Sukjoon Yoon (Captain, ROK Navy, retired) is currently a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs.