Mark Esper, the new U.S. Secretary of Defense, visited Seoul on Thursday afternoon. Secretary Esper will discuss various agendas with President Moon Jae-in, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, and Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, ranging from cost-sharing for the U.S. troops in Korea, to dispatching of troops in the Straits of Hormuz and deployment of mid-range missiles. As to the military cost-sharing, U.S. President Donald Trump had claimed that Korea agreed to pay “substantially more money” to the U.S., labeling South Korea a “very wealthy nation.”
The topics of discussion with Secretary Esper will be mostly requests from Washington to demand Seoul must shoulder more burdens and responsibilities. The cost-sharing issue on the U.S. troops stationed in Korea is a good example. Rumors are circulating in Washington that the increase will amount to billions of dollars, and President Trump is claiming that Seoul has already agreed to pay more when the talks have not even started.
The U.S. is requesting South Korea to join the coalition of the Hormuz Strait. While the Korean government is planning to review it positively, it is still unclear if Washington will be satisfied by Seoul’s response. In a response to Chinese missile threats, the U.S. could choose to deploy mid-range missiles on the Korean Peninsula. Experts predict that Washington will also ask to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement, one of the few leverages left for Seoul in dealing with Japan’s retaliatory trade regulations.
Those issues are all potential tinder boxes that can fuel uncomfortable tensions in the ROK-US alliance, owing to their connotations of the strategic competition between Beijing and Washington as well as the increasingly friction between Tokyo and Seoul. Against this backdrop, Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge in the alliances with a series of short-ranged missile launches, and Trump is pushing his allies to pony up, saying America is “no longer the suckers” of the world. The importance of alliance is growing for Seoul, but each and every issue surrounding its alliances seems to be thornier than ever.
Alliance is defined as a relationship that shares the benefits of collectively tackling a shared threat. Even in an asymmetrical alliance with a significant imbalance of power, a unilateral dependence or sacrifice must not be accepted. An alliance can stay healthy only when the parties involved work together on terms that both willingly agree to. We must study the requests from Washington carefully and consider our own national interests and the shared interests for the two countries, with the contributions we make to this alliance thoroughly taken into account.