U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris met with South Korea's national security adviser Chung Eui-yong at the end of last year and reportedly said the Mutual Defense Treaty could be operated in a different way. It was right after the two countries had failed to reach a deal to share costs for American troops in South Korea. Though it is unclear what exactly Harris meant by it, it can be translated as a warning that the U.S. would consider reducing the number of U.S. forces in South Korea if South Korea does not increase our contribution.
South Korea and the U.S. failed to reach an agreement in the defense cost-sharing talks, which should have been concluded last year. U.S. President Donald Trump demanded that South Korea should pay double the current amount and Washington is insisting on increasing a little more than one trillion won in South Korea’s contribution, stepping back from its previous demand of increasing South Korea’s share by 1.5 times. The negotiations have returned to square one as the U.S. suddenly suggested that the five-year agreement should be renegotiated ever year, leaving one to wonder whether it was Trump’s order or not. The South Korean government is against a sudden hike in its spending. While the South Korean ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense reported to presidential office Cheong Wa Dae that an increase of over one trillion won is inevitable, Cheong Wa Dae refused to increase the spending by over one trillion one for fear of strong criticism from the public.
It has long been expected that there will be a conflict between South Korea and the U.S. over how much South Korea will pay for the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Trump has been criticizing U.S. allies for being “security free riders” since his election campaign. Right after the U.S.-North Korea summit in June last year, Trump talked about the possibility of one day pulling America’s troops out of South Korea and called joint military exercises between the two Koreas as “tremendously expensive war games.” Last year, the U.S. president criticized U.S. allies by saying, “We’re no longer the suckers.” In fact, previous U.S. administrations also played the U.S. Forces Korea card to put a pressure on South Korea according to its change of strategy.
But the situation is much more serious now in that a second U.S.-North Korea summit is around the corner. There is a possibility that Trump will put the issue of U.S. Forces in Korea on the negotiating table at the summit. The value of alliance cannot be measured by money but it should not be overlooked because of money. The issue of defense cost-sharing should be discussed between the leaders of the U.S. and South Korea now. It is not time for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to sit back and do nothing. He should keep in mind nuclear weapons by North Korea are the actual threat to South Korea and that the reality is we should depend on the U.S. in resolving the problem.