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Trump's 'America First' Approach to Military Cost-Sharing Could Hurt Alliance with Seoul

By Kim Young-gyo November 15, 2019

Washington's defense cost-sharing demand could hurt the U.S.-South Korean alliance, said a former military general, suggesting the demand seems to stem from "a new paradigm" the Trump administration has adopted.

Bernard Champoux, a retired three-star general who served as commander of the Eighth Army in South Korea during the Obama administration, said he is "concerned about the impact" the increased cost-sharing demand "will have on the alliance."

The U.S. has been asking South Korea to pay more for keeping about 28,500 American troops in South Korea in the cost-sharing deal set to expire at the end of this year.

In the last round of negotiations for the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) held in October in Honolulu, Washington asked Seoul to pay about $5 billion for next year, an amount that is more than five times the $924 million Seoul agreed to shoulder for this year.

New cost-sharing paradigm

Champoux said the U.S. demand for the increased defense cost-sharing stems from a "new paradigm" adopted by the Trump administration.

Champoux said the increased cost-sharing demand "is not a negotiating tactic because this is the result of a new paradigm." He continued, "It's perhaps consistent with the way this administration has looked at the burden sharing of all our allies, to include Japan and the NATO allies."

As a way of pushing his "American First" policy, a slogan Trump used in his presidential campaign, Trump has given a priority to U.S. national economic interests in broad-ranging foreign policy issues including trade and military alliances.

The approach had Trump declaring the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), America's military alliance with North American and European countries, was "obsolete" and costing too much in January, only to roll back to say, "It's no longer obsolete" in April.

For years before he entered the political arena, Trump had complained that U.S. allies did not pay the U.S. enough for bases and troops used in their defense and, earlier this year, pushed for the "Cost Plus 50" plan.

Under the plan, the U.S. could ask countries hosting American forces such as South Korea, Japan and Germany to pay five to six times as much as they currently pay or an additional 50 percent of current amounts.

"Wealthy, wealthy countries that we're protecting are all under notice," said Trump in January.

Trump has backed away from pushing the plan, and it is uncertain whether it will become official U.S. policy, but the idea is being played out in Washington's defense cost-sharing negotiations with Seoul.

Mark Milley, chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the American public needs an explanation of how much it costs for U.S. forces to defend wealthy countries like South Korea and Japan. He made the remark while en route to Tokyo on Sunday. He arrived in Seoul on Wednesday and met with South Korean General Park Han-Ki for the Annual Military Committee Meeting.

"The average American looking at the forward deployed U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan asks some fundamental questions: Why are they needed there? How much does it cost? These are very rich and wealthy countries, why can't they defend themselves?" Milley said.

He continued, "It is incumbent on us … to make sure we adequately explain how the U.S. military is a stabilizing force in Northeast Asia."

Ahead of Milley's trip, Randall Schriver, assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, said the U.S. allies "have to be willing to pick up a larger share of the burden, as the president has emphasized globally, not just related to South Korea."

Champoux says Washington's steep increase in Seoul's burden of defense cost could impact the alliance in a way that could benefit its adversaries.

"Our adversaries would love there to be an issue or challenge that drives a wedge in the alliance," Champoux said.

David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel and current fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said, "Of course, Korean people are asking why should they pay more." He continued, "We are heading for a train wreck."

On Wednesday, North Korea, one of the adversaries considered by the U.S., expressed anger over the planned joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korea scheduled for December saying they are "hostile" to North Korea. It vowed to respond with "force in kind," through a statement carried by its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

North Korea's statement came as U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday while traveling to Seoul that he is open to the possibility of adjusting the joint drills to provide space for diplomacy.

In Seoul, Esper will be attending the 51st U.S.-ROK Security Consultative Meeting on Friday where he is expected to discuss with South Korea a host of important alliance issues, including the defense cost-sharing deal and an intelligence-sharing pact set to expire this month, which Seoul announced in August that it will terminate with Tokyo against the U.S. urges.

After the 44th Military Committee Meeting in Seoul on Thursday, Milley said the U.S. remains ready to use "the full range of U.S. military capabilities" to respond to "any attacks on the Korean Peninsula" according to a joint statement.

VOA Korean reporter Christy Lee contributed to this report

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