South Korea's President Moon Jae-in faces a busy time after the G20 meeting in Japan. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

The flood of provocative rhetoric on trade from the United States’ commander-in-chief continued on Wednesday, when he suggested he would link US troop presence in South Korea to trade.

“We have a very big trade deficit with them, and we protect them,” President Donald Trump said on Wednesday during a private fundraiser, according to audio recording obtained by The Washington Post. “So we lose money on trade, and we lose money on the military. We have right now 32,000 soldiers on the border between North and South Korea. Let’s see what happens.”

The newspaper later reported that South Korean officials were busy on the phone with counterparts in the United States to clarify the comments.

One White House official denied that the president had suggested moving troops out of South Korea, but said improving the bilateral trade relationship was still a top priority.

US defense officials and diplomats reportedly struggled to develop a public response to Trump’s suggestion, referring calls to the White House.

Remember the THAAD threat?

Trump’s comments harken back to May of last year, when the president threatened to force Seoul to pay for the controversial THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile system. The payment for the system – which has been deployed in South Korea as part of a US regional defense strategy at a significant political price for leaders in Seoul – had already been agreed upon. National Security Ddviser H R McMaster tried to play cleanup by assuring officials in Seoul that Trump’s threats were not official policy.

That didn’t go so well, as Bloomberg reported:

Trump was livid, according to three White House officials, after reading in the Wall Street Journal that McMaster had called his South Korean counterpart to assure him that the president’s threat to make that country pay for a new missile defense system was not official policy. These officials say Trump screamed at McMaster on a phone call, accusing him of undercutting efforts to get South Korea to pay its fair share.

Administration officials, including McMaster, who reports say is still in danger of being fired, will now have to think twice about reassuring America’s close ally. Meanwhile, in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un is enjoying his popcorn.

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