US President Donald Trump meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the UN General Assembly in New York. Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque
US President Donald Trump meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the UN General Assembly in New York. Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque

I am writing in response to the Nikkel Asian Review article “If Trump wins in 2020, he will pull US troops out of South Korea.” The author has suggested that if US President Donald Trump wins re-election in 2020, he will withdraw American troops from South Korea. He also suggested that South Korea should pay the $5 billion dollars requested by the Trump administration for keeping US troops in the country. The author’s reasoning is that by paying the $5 billion dollars, the South Korean government would be able to call the Trump administration’s bluff as it tries to wriggle its way out of South Korea.

For a start, the idea that Trump will withdraw US troops from South Korea is a non-starter as the John S McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, which was enacted in 2018, explicitly states no authorized funds may be used to reduce the number of US troops in South Korea below 22,000 unless the secretary of defense certifies to the congressional defense committees that:

(1) a reduction is in the US national security interest and “will not significantly undermine the security of United States allies in the region”; and

(2) the secretary of defense has consulted with US allies, including South Korea and Japan, regarding such a reduction in the troop level.

Section 1265 of the act also directs the defense secretary, in coordination with the Director of National Intelligence, to report to Congressional defense committees regular reports and updates on the scale and operational status of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The Trump administration would require additional justification for a US troop withdrawal below 22,000.

Contrary to Trump’s repeated public remarks that North Korea no longer poses a threat to the US, the American intelligence community has consistently gathered intelligence concluding that North Korea has not taken any substantial steps toward dismantling its nuclear program. Without explicit backing from the US intelligence community, Trump would find it very hard to gather the justification he needs to order the drawing down of US forces in South Korea.

And the bill has effectively stymied any potential US troop withdrawal by barring the use of US funds for withdrawal purposes, and troop withdrawal is a very expensive endeavor.

The barring of usage of funds for the withdrawal of US troops creates a major obstacle for Trump.

The recently passed 2020 National Defense Authorization Act further tied the president by specifically barring the drawing down of US troops from the current level of 28,500, and the bill passed in Congress with a veto-proof majority. The massive support for the law will deter the president from exercising his right to veto the bill. It is one thing to want to be friends with North Korea, it is another matter to withdraw US troops from South Korea. Any withdrawal of US troops is bound to face strong resistance from Congress and the US foreign policy establishment, and the fear that Trump may withdraw troops from South Korea has led to Congressional provisions to stymie his move.

With the US currently in a tussle with China for influence after naming China as a strategic competitor, any withdrawal of US troops from South Korea would be a strategic gift to China and be the death knell for US influence in South Korea and Japan. The present arrangement allows the US to make its presence felt in the region and the presence of US troops is a physical embodiment of that influence. With North Korea failing to take meaningful steps toward fulfilling the stated irreversible denuclearization as set by the Trump administration, it is politically and legally impossible for Trump to draw down troops in South Korea.

Lastly, South Korea would be foolish to agree to pay $5 billion yearly to the US. Total yearly costs for the presence of US troops in South Korea is around US$2 billion, and South Korea has contributed substantially to alleviate the costs borne by the US. Paying $5 billion will mean paying the US a surplus of $3 billion and it is virtually impossible for South Korea to agree to this one-sided deal. The idea of a fresh cost-sharing review has always been disliked by South Korea as at each fresh review, it has to pay more to the US to keep its troops in the country. Successive South Korean governments have tried to limit increases in contributions to the US government through hardnosed negotiations and cajoling.

Successive South Korean governments have tried to limit increases in contributions to the US government through hardnosed negotiations and cajoling

Hence no South Korean leader will agree to pay upfront $5 billion yearly to the US as it will lock South Korea into a precedent that will be virtually impossible for the country to deviate from.

For political reasons, at every fresh cost review negotiation session, the US government must secure an increase from South Korea.

Every US government, regardless of political affiliations, will not allow the South Korean government to decrease its costs contribution toward keeping US forces in South Korea. No US political leader can afford to be seen as weak in standing up for US interests. Hence at every review, there was always tension as the US has pushed for more increases and South Korea has pushed for the smallest possible increase.

However, past US administrations have been aware of the political sensitivity of this issue in South Korea and have not pushed their luck too far with their counterparts. Past American administrations have understood that having US troops in South Korea is a great plus for American power projection in the region. There was always a give and take spirit. However, that is not the case with the current US administration.

Any South Korean leader who signs this deal will be committing political suicide. Acceding to Trump’s request will expose South Korea to more extortion by the Trump administration and set a bad precedent for Japan whose cost-sharing agreement is up for review in 2021.

Also read: Thunder of protest echoes across Seoul – but voices mixed

Maa Zhi Hong

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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