U.S. President Donald Trump “has devised an eye-popping formula” to make allies hosting U.S. forces to “pay the full cost of stationing American troops on their territory, plus 50 percent more,” the Washington Post reported Sunday. South Korea has signed a deal with the United States to raise its contribution to the upkeep of American troops by 8.2 percent this year, but as it is a one-year deal, the country needs to resume negotiations on sharing the defense cost almost in no time.
The formula called by Trump “cost plus 50” is yet unclear; the specific type and scope of the cost he refers to remains unknown. As it was floated during private discussions with his aides, the idea is apparently not an official stance of the administration. However, this clearly demonstrates how Trump thinks about an alliance in terms of cost. Demanding additional payment plus bills required for stationed troops is obviously based on a simple logic that the United States unilaterally offers benefits while its ally gets help, and it doesn’t seem to be easy to change his way of thinking.
Trump’s such one-sided view is raising serious concern about the future of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. He already expressed his wish to withdraw U.S. troops in Korea someday. Even after the breakdown of his second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Trump said that he would keep the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises suspended, because it costs much to hold drills including the deployment of strategic assets. Under such circumstances, it is doubtful if anyone can persuade Trump to reconsider his view that regards all U.S. allies as “free riders.”
What’s more problematic is that the Moon Jae-in administration is adding to worries. The two countries have already announced that they will replace the large-scale military drills such as Key Resolve with the new exercise Dong Maeng, and the Ulchi Freedom Guardian is likely to face the same fate. Moreover, the Seoul government is actively seeking an early transition of the wartime operational control. Yet, U.S. Forces would not be able to maintain the same attitude and determination in the event of emergency, under a new ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) led by a South Korean commander. In short, U.S. Forces in Korea, CFC, and combined military exercises, which have served as the backbone of the two countries’ military alliance, are in effect growing weaker.
Changes in the alliance may not be unavoidable if North Korea’s nuclear issue is resolved and a peace regime is settled. However, as seen in the Hanoi summit, it’s still up in the air whether North Korea will get rid of its nuclear weapons to bring peace on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang even has shown signs of attempting to carry out provocations, and if it does so, we may have to witness a weakened relationship, which is an alliance in name only. Therefore, Seoul and Washington should immediately check the foundation of the alliance and come up with countermeasures to respond to the North’s possible provocations.