South Korean soldiers near the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je
South Korean soldiers near the Demilitarized Zone. Questions now hover over their alliance with the United States. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Does the camera lie? In recent photographs taken in Seoul, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper beams, while his Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyeong-doo, looks dazed, if not shell-shocked.

Of course, one should not read too much into photo opportunities. But ongoing developments suggest that South Korea is facing unprecedented demands from its alliance partner.

Esper and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley are both in Seoul this week for negotiations. They are making two key demands.

First, Washington is pressuring Seoul to do a U-turn on its decision to nix an intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo. South Korea, engaged in a long and bruising battle with Japan on historical, diplomatic and trade fronts, extended the fight into the security space in September by announcing it would not extend an intelligence-sharing pact that expires on November 23.

That irked the US, which is pursuing a trilateral, united front of Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to confront China, North Korea and Russia in Northeast Asia. Bowing to Washington and doing a turnaround on the issue would be a humiliation for the Moon Jae-in administration – particularly among its left-leaning support base.

Secondly, Esper, on Friday in a televised press briefing, said South Korea “is a wealthy country and could and should pay more” for the costs incurred by US Forces Korea, or USFK, the 28,500-strong US force deployed in-country.

Esper did not put a dollar figure on that increase, but evidence is mounting that Washington is demanding a whopping 500% increase over what Seoul paid last year.

Given the colossal scale of that increase, some speculate that US President Donald Trump is presenting South Korea with an offer it will have to refuse, with the rationale being the winding down of USFK on the peninsula and bringing the troops home.

Commercializing US forces

In terms of military adventures, Trump has proven the most prudent American president in recent years. He launched a virtual pinprick raid against Syria after it employed chemical weapons, held American fire during Iran’s “tanker war” and is pulling GIs in the Syrian battlespace out of harm’s way.

However, the commercially-minded president has been aggressive in other spheres. He has already weaponized trade and now he may be monetizing defense.

For years, Trump has fumed about allies not spending enough on their defense. For months, unconfirmed reports in Seoul have suggested that Washington seeks US$5 billion in cost-sharing. Now, reports from Washington concur.

CNN today, citing a congressional aide and an administration official, reported that Trump wants South Korea to pay $4.7 billion for USFK’s costs in 2020. For comparison, last year South Korea agreed to pay just under $1 billion.

According to the report, some in the Pentagon are “distressed” at the soaring figure and many on Capitol Hill are “not happy.” South Koreans, confronted with the demand, asked whether US forces were now “mercenaries,” CNN reported.

South Korea offers the US considerable security benefits. It is the front line of an echeloned US Pacific defense that stretches through Japan, Guam and Hawaii to the US mainland. It also provides Washington with a platform to monitor North Korean, Chinese and Russian moves in the region.

And the basing of a US missile defense system on South Korean soil has had costly implications for South Korea: An angry China retaliated with economic counter-measures.

USFK is 28,500-strong. Although it fields a skeleton – ie, undermanned but enforceable – mechanized infantry division, an artillery brigade and multiple aircraft, helicopter and drone assets, its primary function is as a base. Backed by depots in Japan, USFK provides an infrastructure to coordinate and deploy, in theater, the mass influx of US combat assets that would counter a future North Korean attack.

USFK also coordinates other Asia- or globally-based US assets on rotations to or around the Korean peninsula. These include carrier battle groups, nuclear submarines, strategic bombers, infantry brigade headquarters and SEAL teams.

The pricing of USFK is at the heart of the lengthy and sometimes testy annual negotiations between Seoul and Washington that have been kick-started by the Esper-Milley visit, and which are expected to continue until, or possibly beyond, year’s end. And there is considerable opacity on the costing.

Cost-benefit analysis

“Right now, it is very unclear,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, told Asia Times. “Previously, cost-sharing did not include pay and the cost of living allowance – those things were not included.”

That is because the US troops would have to pay those elements wherever they happen to be stationed. Even so, under the Barack Obama administration, there was a broad understanding that the cost burden was split down the middle.

“Up until the previous US administration, the US acknowledged that Korea was sharing 50% of stationing costs,” Chun added.

However, USFK Commander-in-Chief General Robert Abrams, in a rare interview this week, was blunt about his dissatisfaction with existing arrangements. He cited payments to South Korean base workers and the companies that service USFK.

Seoul’s contributions “are paying Koreans,” he said, according to press pool reports. “They support us logistically or build new facilities to support US Forces Korea. So I want to be clear, that money is going right back into the Korean economy and to the Korean people. It’s not coming to me.”

He also told reporters that the government needs to do a better job of informing South Koreans about defense cost-sharing benefits.

Indeed, South Korea lies in a dangerous neighborhood. As well as its ongoing confrontation with North Korea, it faces a rising China, while relations with Japan are dire. Seoul has no military alliance with any power bar Washington – the sole global hyperpower.

That raises a further question – whether Seoul should contribute costs for US assets that visit, but are not based upon, the peninsula. With North Korea a nuclear-armed state, South Korea is sheltered under the US nuclear umbrella.

Still, nobody outside defense circles knows the rationale for the $5 billion price tag, if that figure is, indeed, accurate. And of course, it could simply be a Trumpian opening gambit, to be whittled down in what are sure to be tough negotiations.

Even so, it looks dubious to experts.

“If $5 billion is the proposal, the real problem is that we Koreans have not been given the rationale for the drastic, five-fold increase,” Chun said. “I think Mr Trump owes us a clear explanation.”

Bringing the boys home?

A serving member of the USFK, in a private communication to Asia Times, wondered whether the reported cost increase could be a Trumpian ploy to end USFK. The logic? By presenting Seoul with an impossible price to pay, Trump could use the resultant refusal as the rationale to remove troops from the country.

Daniel Pinkston, a security and international relations expert at Troy University – who has himself argued that South Korea should pay more for USFK – considers the reported price ludicrous.

“It is in the shadow of National Assembly elections in April. Any decision made has to be ratified, and anyone running for a seat who says he or she will vote for $5 billion for USFK … it’s not happening,” said Pinkston. “I just don’t think that number is politically acceptable.”

A US pullout from South Korea – such as the one which the United States executed from Taiwan in 1979 – could well synch with Trump’s view, which tends to be against the forward deployment of US troops.

Just as the US pullout from Taiwan did not green light a Chinese invasion, a US withdrawal from South Korea – according to some – would not necessarily encourage aggression from North Korea.

A US official earlier this year told Asia Times that even if USFK was reduced to “one corporal” it would maintain deterrent value – assuming that the corporal was killed in the first North Korean attack, which would compel a US intervention.

And even if the totality of USFK packed up and went home, Seoul and Washington could still remain linked by their 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty. So, were North Korea to attack South Korea, the US military could still intervene – albeit, not as swiftly or efficiently as it could do with USFK supplying base infrastructure.

However, opinion is divided. Others say a USFK pullout is questionable, from both the strategic and economic standpoints.

The case for USFK

USFK is militarily essential because “US forces provide deterrence – it is not about winning a war, it is about preventing a war,” said ex-general Chun. “Psychologically, if there was a perception that the alliance was weakened – and that perception would be stronger if US forces were not here – North Korea might make a miscalculation as they did 70 years ago.”

A 1949 withdrawal of US troops encouraged North Korean leader Kim Il Sung to invade the South in 1950 – and the few days it took for US troops stationed in Japan to arrive and join the fight was enough for the North Koreans to take over all but one corner of the country. The murderous Korean War continued until 1953, ending in a stalemate, despite millions of dead.

Moreover, a US withdrawal might compel South Korea to go critical with nuclear weaponry – a development that could, in turn, compel North Korea to attack.

“South Korea has the financial resources and technology and human resources” to create home-grown nuclear arms, Pinkston said – but it would take about two years to create an operational deterrent.

“If the program is underway and the US is out of here and you are North Korea, and you already have nuclear weapons, you have a strong incentive to strike and destroy that program, like the Israelis did,” he said, referring to a 1981 attack on an Iraqi reactor.

The economic rationale for re-stationing Korea-based GIs in the United States is also questionable.

“People say if you redeployed the forces back to the US, it would cost more to base them there as you have to pay their salaries anyway, right?” Pinkston said. In Korea, “the South Koreans pay for electricity, land, sewage treatment, civilian salaries on base … so the US would not be getting a cost savings back in the US.”

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