The third slide of the U.S. Department of Defense’s presentation outlined the military contributions made by South Korea, including the resources the nation provided for the construction of Camp Humphreys. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis particularly liked this part of the presentation.
Unfortunately, the exact same slide triggered very different reaction from U.S. President Donald Trump who strongly criticized South Korea and Japan for “ripping the United States off.” Startled by an unexpected response, Mattis turned to the next slide that displayed Washington’s allies and partners highlighting the power of the U.S. global network, in which Trump paid little interest except for when he suddenly burst out “Iran violated the nuclear deal.”
Trump’s first Pentagon briefing on July 20, 2017 got derailed just like this. It is probably the most shocking part of the 320-page book “Holding the Line” by Guy Snodgrass, who resigned as a chief speechwriter and communications director for former Defense Secretary James Mattis, at the end of last year. His description is incredibly detailed and accurate – what you would expect from someone whose job entails recording major meetings and events in great detail.
When the 50-minute briefing was coming to an end, Trump suddenly brought up the topic of the military parade for Independence Day after he commented again on the issue of defense cost-sharing, saying, “This is one big monster. Japan, German, South Korea.”
“Did you see President Macron’s handshake? He wouldn’t let go. The Fourth of July is too hot. The French had an amazing parade on Bastille Day with tanks and everything. Why can’t we do that?”, he said.
As Trump continued with his comments, Mattis went silent, sitting away from the table. There, he was left feeling frustrated by the president who cares about nothing but numbers and jumps between different topics.
One thing we should never forget about Trump is that he gets what he wants. Six months later, he revisited the Pentagon and mentioned the military parade again. On July 4, 2019, Washington saw tanks and strategic bombs displayed.
It is highly likely that Seoul will have to pay significantly more after the cost-sharing negotiations which are due at the end of the year, and this may only be the beginning. A wave of challenges of similar nature is awaiting South Korea. There are no longer “mature” advisors who dare to offer honest opinions to Trump. This is exactly why Seoul cannot sit and hope for a silver lining. It needs to be more realistic and objective in diagnosing the current situation. It should not expect Trump to have changed by now having realized the value of the South Korea-U.S. alliance.