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Is the Trump-South Korea Cost Sharing Spat Over?

Is the Trump-South Korea Cost Sharing Spat Over?

Daniel R. DePetris

Security, Asia

Ultimately, the strength of any alliance isn’t about how much the junior partner pays, but how capable both partners are. In the future, the Trump administration would be wise to devote more time encouraging South Korea to boost its capability and take an ever-larger share of responsibility for its own defense and less time milking Seoul for cash.

Washington and Seoul have a deal. Or more to the point, whatever deal that is signed won’t include the spending windfall the Trump administration was hoping for.

The cost-sharing negotiations between the United States and South Korea have been filled to the brim with tension and brinkmanship. President Donald Trump has made no bones out of the fact that he thinks the South Koreans are penny-pinching in order to take advantage of the United States and spend as little as possible on their own defense. In Trump’s mind, South Korea is one of the wealthiest countries on the planet with a $1.6 trillion GDP, a booming manufacturing sector, and a proficient military that needs to pony up more money if it wants U.S. troops to remain stationed on the peninsula. It’s an irritant Trump has harbored since his days as a real-estate tycoon in Manhattan; during an interview with Playbook in 1990, Trump ravaged Japan, Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait for “walking all over us.”  Trump’s view of the matter is straightforward: if you have the ability to pay, you ought to pay.  No if’s, and’s, or but’s.

For the South Koreans, the matter isn’t so straightforward. The logic underlying these talks isn’t based on a balance sheet, but on pride, national sovereignty, and fairness. There is a reason why 68% of South Koreans polled by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs want President Moon Jae-in’s administration to stand fast and negotiate a lower increase than what Trump is demanding. One-quarter recommend the South walk away from the table entirely, a move that may play well with Moon’s progressive bass but would be guaranteed to solicit howls of protest from conservative lawmakers. Antagonizing South Korea’s principal security ally on the eve of legislative elections is not a route Moon is willing to go, even if he thinks Trump’s position is absurd. And yet Moon also can’t afford to swallow his grievances and capitulate to Trump, knowing that even coming close to Washington’s top-line number would spawn editorials lambasting him for spinelessness. 

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