The alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States may be about to go off the rails. Two critical events occurred in December 2018 that do not bode well for the future of this crucial alliance. First, talks between the ROK and U.S. governments collapsed without reaching a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) to fund U.S. troops on the Peninsula before the current deal expired on December 31. At the same time, President Trump has firmly reiterated his transactional view of alliances in his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, substantially draw down troops in Afghanistan, and in his tweets condemning Secretary Mattis’ resignation letter, which expressed the fundamental differences in views on the importance of alliances to the U.S.
Trump may see the SMA impasse as an opportunity to end the U.S. presence. At his press conference on June 12th at the Singapore summit, he declared that he wanted to bring U.S. troops home. In June and August, he proclaimed that military exercises in Korea were not only “provocative war games” but they were too expensive. His December 24 tweet, now infamous in Korea, may be most ominous for the alliance: “We are substantially subsidizing the Militaries of many VERY rich countries all over the world, while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the United States, and our TAXPAYERS, on Trade. General Mattis did not see this as a problem. I DO, and it is being fixed!”
The SMA is negotiated every five years and establishes the funding levels the ROK government provides to support the stationing costs of U.S. forces in Korea. These funds cover logistics, utilities, maintenance and construction of facilities, and local Korean workers’ salaries. After ten meetings, no agreement could be reached and, according to Korean reports, the negotiators are back to square one.
Trump seems not to recognize that the ROK makes significant contributions to its own defense. In 2017, 2.7 percent of its GDP went to defense — a higher percentage than any member of NATO except the U.S. Furthermore, the ROK’s 2018 defense budget increased by 9.9 pecent, or $40 billion, the largest in history. It has an active force of 625,000 troops with 28,000 Americans stationed in South Korea. Under the current SMA, the ROK covers half of the roughly $1.6 billion basing cost for American troops, but according to reports, Trump wants Seoul to pay 100 percent.
Yet South Korea already covers more than just annual basing costs.
David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.