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[Editorial] Face up to Trump

Ruling bloc should meet with Trump to widen bipartisan network in Washington

By Korea Herald

Published : May 3, 2024 - 05:30

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Former US President Donald Trump suggested that should he be reelected, the US could withdraw its forces from South Korea if it does not pay more to support US troops stationed here.

“I want South Korea to treat us properly. As you know, I got them to -- I had negotiations, because they were paying virtually nothing for 40,000 troops that we had there,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said in a recent interview with Time magazine. The number is actually 28,500.

“We have 40,000 troops, and in a somewhat precarious position, to put it mildly, because right next door happens to be a man I got along with very well, but a man who nevertheless, he’s got visions of things.”

Trump said he had told Seoul that it was time to pay more because it has become a very wealthy country, and South Korea had agreed to pay billions of dollars.

South Korea is paying over 1 trillion won ($727 million) per year for the upkeep of US Forces Korea. Trump, however, continued to make untrue claims that it is paying "almost nothing."

“They're paying very little. … From what I’m hearing, they were able to renegotiate with the Biden administration and bring that number way, way down to what it was before, which was almost nothing,” he said.

“Which doesn’t make any sense. Why would we defend somebody? And we’re talking about a very wealthy country. They were actually, they were a pleasure to deal with. Not easy initially, but ultimately, they became a pleasure to deal with. And they agreed to pay billions of dollars to the US for our military being there. Billions, many billions."

Since 1991, Seoul has partially shared the cost for Korean workers for US Forces Korea; the construction of military installations, such as barracks, and training, educational, operational and communications facilities; as well as other logistical support.

While it has been widely expected that Trump would stick to his previous policy on pushing Seoul to pay more for the US forces here, it was the first time he brought up the topic on his reelection campaign, and it is disconcerting that he thinks of all of America’s relationships with its allies as strictly transactional. He has little or no regard for the strategic value, let alone sharing such values as freedom and democracy.

Seoul and Washington just held their first round of negotiations in Honolulu last week for a new Special Measures Agreement over South Korea’s share of the cost for the US military forces here.

Observers have said that the allies sought to hold SMA talks earlier than usual due to concerns that should former Trump return to the White House for a second term, he could strike a tough deal for a new SMA in a way that could cause friction in the alliance.

During Trump's presidency, the SMA negotiation was a major point of contention, as he demanded South Korea increase its payments five- to sixfold. He also talked about reducing the number of US troops here, but ultimately was stopped by his aides.

Even if Seoul and Washington manage to reach an agreement within this year, Trump could always demand a renegotiation should he get reelected. The South Korean government should strategize against all possible scenarios.

The two sides should work on ways to block any possible unsettling of the foundation of the alliance, regardless of whoever wins the US presidential election in November. Members of the South Korean ruling bloc should meet with Trump and his key aides as part of efforts to widen its bipartisan network in Washington. Former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, a senior figure in the country’s governing party, met with Trump just last week, just two weeks after Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to the US.

Trump’s reelection would mean major challenges not just on the diplomatic and security front, but also in global trade. He said in the interview with Time that he would implement at least a 10 percent tariff on all imports, and more than 60 percent on Chinese imports. The Seoul government should think about how it should respond in case of such changes, so it doesn't fall into total chaos.