Interviews | Security | East Asia

Scott Snyder on Trump, South Korea, and ‘America-First’ Alliance Policy

“One dismisses the president’s longstanding beliefs that allies such as South Korea are free riders at one’s own peril.”

Shannon Tiezzi
Scott Snyder on Trump, South Korea, and ‘America-First’ Alliance Policy
Credit: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead

As U.S. President Donald Trump’s first (and possibly only) term winds down, analysts are taking stock of his legacy. One area that has caused near-constant hand-wringing among foreign policy hands is Trump’s cavalier approach to long-standing U.S. alliances – an attitude that South Korea has become all too familiar with. The alliance has seen acrimonious negotiations over Seoul’s financial support for U.S. troops and periodic threats to withdraw U.S. forces from the peninsula — all while handling perennial issues of Japan-South Korea tensions and differences over the best way to approach North Korea.

To discuss the health of the U.S.-South Korea alliance amid these challenges, The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi interviewed Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

The United States and South Korea have been at loggerheads over a renewal of their Special Measures Agreements (SMA) since 2018, when the two sides were unable to reach agreement on a full, five-year extension. Now even the one-year stopgap has expired. Can you outline the current state of the SMA negotiations? What do the SMA troubles tell us about the state of the U.S.-South Korea alliance?

Following an initial negotiating position that reportedly ran as high as $5 billion per year from the current $860 million budget to cover costs of deployment of personnel and equipment from the U.S. mainland and exercises conducted in theater, reports suggest that the U.S. government has lowered its demands to $1.3 billion/year. South Korea reportedly offered a 13 percent increase in existing contributions, but the United States rejected the offer. South Korea has insisted on keeping the originally designated categories of on-peninsula labor, base construction, and logistics as the basis for negotiating the SMA, and has resisted the latest U.S. government offer, perhaps thinking it will be possible to run out the clock on the Trump administration.

President Donald J. Trump’s move to reduce troops from Germany as part of a global reposturing review has added to South Korean anxieties, which are somewhat allayed by a 2020 National Defense Authorization bill that requires the president to maintain troop levels at 28,500, conditional upon consultations with South Korea and Japan and assurances that South Korea’s and Japan’s security will not be undermined by the reductions. South Korea’s nightmare prospect of a Trump-Kim breakthrough in which Trump utilizes South Korean defense equities as a bargaining chip for a nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has receded as North Korea has retrenched behind its assessment that the U.S. “hostile policy” toward North Korea is enduring and virtually unchangeable.

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Despite the protracted burden sharing impasse, recent South Korean polls have consistently registered record levels of public support of over 90 percent for the alliance with the United States. This support for the alliance contrasts with quietly growing doubts among South Korean elites about the credibility of U.S. defense commitments and anxiety about Trump’s transactional instincts. Their primary concern is that the interaction between Trump’s America-first approach to the alliances and the Moon administration’s recent North Korea-first appointments to its national security team could prove toxic to the alliance despite extensive institutionalized policy coordination between national defense and foreign policy bureaucracies in Seoul and Washington.

The Trump administration, including President Donald Trump himself, has occasionally floated the idea of cutting back the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. How seriously should we take such comments?

I think one dismisses the president’s longstanding beliefs that allies such as South Korea are free riders at one’s own peril. For this reason, South Korea is fortunate to have strong support from within the U.S. government, Congress, and American public. This support has thus far generated political risks and raised the costs of cutting back the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, most clearly embodied in the language of the National Defense Authorization Act. But there is always the risk that if South Korea becomes the target of persistent Trump tweets accusing allies of free-riding, American public support would falter, especially if South Korea is perceived as taking stances on North Korea and Japan that cause friction with the United States and catalyze doubts about South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s intentions.

With the U.S.-North Korea dialogue process falling flat, despite two summits between Trump and Kim Jong Un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in faces an uphill battle in his aspiration for improved inter-Korea relations. How do you assess the current dynamics of the Kim-Moon-Trump triangle? How will Moon balance his inter-Korea policy with the United States’ “maximum pressure” approach?

South Korea’s dramatic transformation from intermediary to marginalized actor illustrates the perils to Moon’s pursuit of a foreign policy approach that depends on North Korean cooperation to achieve success. Instead, we have learned a lot over the past two years about the assumptions behind Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic charm offensive outreach to Moon. Kim sought to revive a flow of tangible financial benefits from South Korea and to use Moon’s influence to sway Trump, or alternatively to encourage South Korea to pursue greater independence from and generate greater friction with the United States. Kim seems aggrieved by Moon’s failure to convince Trump to go along with the spirit of the Pyongyang Declaration, a formula through which sanctions relaxation would accompany limited, symbolic steps toward denuclearization.

The always contentious relationship between Japan and South Korea hit a new low last year, with political tensions spilling into the economic field. Amid trade restrictions and a Korean popular boycott of Japanese goods, how is the U.S. navigating tensions between its two allies?

The United States has navigated Japan-South Korea tensions with difficulty, as Japanese and South Korean allies of the United States take steps that challenge the primary assumption underlying the U.S.-led security architecture – that the security of Japan and South Korea are indivisible from each other. Japan-South Korea diplomatic normalization in 1965 itself came about because the United States prioritized geopolitical realism over a full accounting for historical grievances.

Japan’s imposition of export controls on items critical to South Korea’s semiconductor industry threatens the U.S.-led security architecture by using economic relations as a solvent rather than as glue that supports the relationship, which is how economic ties have functioned for the Japan-South Korea relationship ever since the occasion of normalization in 1965. Likewise, South Korea’s threats to revoke the General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement (GSOMIA) challenge unity and coordination on the security side of the relationship. The United States must continue to uphold geopolitical realism and the U.S.-led security architecture and oppose all efforts to separate Japan and South Korea from each other while encouraging both sides to incorporate a compassionate approach toward victims of historical wrongs.

Overall, would you say the Trump administration has seen the U.S.-South Korea alliance improve or weaken? What impact might a victory by Joe Biden in November’s presidential election have on the alliance?

Institutional coordination has remained strong, but political management of the relationship has introduced sources of doubt and issues that could severely weaken if not eviscerate the alliance. The biggest unexpected threat to the alliance is the risk that Trump’s America-first policies could clash with the North Korea-first political instincts of some members of the Moon administration in ways that could drastically weaken the strong convergence of interests and policy coordination reflected at the bureaucratic level within both governments.

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The election of Joe Biden would ease some America-first influences in U.S. government policy and bring a renewed focus to cooperative settlement of burden sharing and alliance management issues. But it is possible to imagine greater tensions between the United States and North Korea under a Biden administration, making the task of coordinating policies with Moon and future South Korean administrations both more important and potentially more difficult.