A looming threat to the US-South Korea alliance

The alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States may be about to go off the rails. Two critical events occurred in December 2018 that do not bode well for the future of this crucial alliance. First, talks between the ROK and U.S. governments collapsed without reaching a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) to fund U.S. troops on the Peninsula before the current deal expired on December 31. At the same time, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems demand Barr cancel 'inappropriate' press conference on Mueller report DOJ plans to release 'lightly redacted' version of Mueller report Thursday: WaPo Nadler accuses Barr of 'unprecedented steps' to 'spin' Mueller report MORE has firmly reiterated his transactional view of alliances in his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, substantially draw down troops in Afghanistan, and in his tweets condemning Secretary Mattis’ resignation letter, which expressed the fundamental differences in views on the importance of alliances to the U.S.

Trump may see the SMA impasse as an opportunity to end the U.S. presence. At his press conference on June 12th at the Singapore summit, he declared that he wanted to bring U.S. troops home. In June and August, he proclaimed that military exercises in Korea were not only “provocative war games” but they were too expensive. His December 24 tweet, now infamous in Korea, may be most ominous for the alliance: “We are substantially subsidizing the Militaries of many VERY rich countries all over the world, while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the United States, and our TAXPAYERS, on Trade. General Mattis did not see this as a problem. I DO, and it is being fixed!”

The SMA is negotiated every five years and establishes the funding levels the ROK government provides to support the stationing costs of U.S. forces in Korea. These funds cover logistics, utilities, maintenance and construction of facilities, and local Korean workers’ salaries. After ten meetings, no agreement could be reached and, according to Korean reports, the negotiators are back to square one.

Trump seems not to recognize that the ROK makes significant contributions to its own defense. In 2017, 2.7 percent of its GDP went to defense — a higher percentage than any member of NATO except the U.S. Furthermore, the ROK’s 2018 defense budget increased by 9.9 pecent, or $40 billion, the largest in history. It has an active force of 625,000 troops with 28,000 Americans stationed in South Korea. Under the current SMA, the ROK covers half of the roughly $1.6 billion basing cost for American troops, but according to reports, Trump wants Seoul to pay 100 percent.

Yet South Korea already covers more than just annual basing costs. The recently expanded Camp Humphreys is now the largest U.S. military base outside of the continental U.S. It cost some $10.7 billion and the ROK provided 90 percent of the funds. The ROK government also agreed to a renegotiated Korea-U.S Free Trade Agreement, in response to pressure from Trump.  Finally, from 2012 through 2016 the ROK purchased $19.8 billion in U.S. military equipment through Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales. 

It is essential for both sides to remember that the primary purpose of the alliance is to prevent war. The highest ranking North Korean defector, Hwang Jong Yop, said the only thing deterring an attack by the North is the presence of U.S. troops. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan a war on the Korean peninsula will have global impact and the loss of blood and treasure will far surpass the 1950-53 conflict. 

When the previous SMA expired at the end of 2013, the ROK and U.S. concluded a follow on agreement a month later. It provided for a 6 percent increase in ROK contributions, which the ROK parliament did not approve until April 2014. However, there was no interruption of support and services, since the two sides extended the old agreement on a provisional basis, much like the situation under a continuing resolution when a budget is not passed in the U.S. It is unknown what will happen when the current SMA expires as the situation is significantly different with two new presidents. 

The issue is the U.S. view of alliances: alliances of shared values, shared interests, and shared strategy or alliances as purely transactional. Even the transactional view shows that the ROK funds a significant amount for the U.S. deterrent role while making the greater contribution of forces willing to fight for their country.

If Trump’s view of alliances does not change, the ROK government may yet offer a compromise to increase its burden sharing contribution. But Moon will almost certainly ask Trump to meet him in the middle, and it’s unclear whether Trump will accept anything less than 100 percent. If he doesn’t, U.S. troops may soon be departing from the Korean Peninsula. It would be a tragic and abrupt end to the ROK-U.S. strategic alliance.

More worryingly, it could bring a tragic and abrupt start of a new conflict with North Korea, without the presence of a U.S. deterrent force.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.