What is going on with the United States alliance with South Korea?

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In recent weeks, the Trump administration has stepped up its campaign to persuade, or if necessary strongarm, South Korea into increasing its payments in support of the roughly 30,000 American troops normally stationed on the peninsula.

South Korea now pays the United States about $1 billion a year to help support the military based in its territory, a modest increase of about 10 percent from earlier years that Seoul agreed to make after earlier pressure by the Trump administration. This “host nation support” payment covers most local costs of American forces in South Korea for things like land, utilities, housing, construction, and some labor. It does not cover their salaries or equipment. South Korea has also paid for about 90 percent of the costs associated with relocating many American troops from areas in and near Seoul to Camp Humphries some 50 miles south.

Now President TrumpDonald John TrumpWatergate prosecutor says that Sondland testimony was ‘tipping point’ for Trump In private moment with Trump, Justice Kennedy pushed for Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination: book Obama: ‘Everybody needs to chill out’ about differences between 2020 candidates MORE wants a fivefold increase in the annual payments by South Korea. Is that fair or realistic? To answer this question, another key data point is essential. South Korea presently spends almost 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on its armed forces. That is the highest such figure devoted to defense spending of any American ally on the planet, with the exception of Colombia and several security partners in the Middle East that are not, formally speaking, American treaty allies.

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The United States itself spends just over 3 percent. The NATO average is 1.5 percent, and the formal NATO goal is 2 percent for each country. Australia clocks in at 2 percent. Japan, mostly to everyone’s relief, remains no higher than 1.0 percent. If one seeks to blue-sky the question of how much burden sharing is enough, there could perhaps be several ways to attempt an answer:

  • Out of fairness, everyone should pay roughly what the United States, the backstop of the whole system, itself does, or at least close to the same amount. By this approach, South Korea might indeed spend $5 billion more per year, but on its own forces, not ours.
  • Everyone should agree to a goal, through formal alliance threat assessment, and then hold themselves to it. If South Korea adopted the NATO standard, it could actually cut at least $5 billion a year in defense spending and still meet the goal.
  • A host nation should cover all local and incremental costs associated with the presence of whatever number of U.S. forces might be on its territory. 
  • A host nation should also cover the salaries, maintenance, training, and equipment costs of those American forces. For nearly 30,000 U.S. troops, or 2 percent of our military, that would surely exceed $10 billion a year.
  • A host nation like Korea should also pay for some fraction of the tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops, normally based in the United States, who would likely come to its aid in the event of war—meaning many tens of billions of dollars annually.

The last two ideas can be rejected quickly. For one thing, even those U.S. forces normally stationed in Korea are usable elsewhere; indeed, during the 2000s, the Bush administration sent a brigade of Army troops from Korea to the Middle East (and it never returned to Korea thereafter). Those forces, after all, remain American troops, not mercenaries hired by Korea, as Heritage scholar Bruce Klingner has underscored.

By the first two bullets above, South Korea is already doing quite well, even if it could do even better. Even if it did so, however, given President Trump’s worldview, he might not care, since he seems more focused on the transactional status of the alliance than on deterrence against North Korea.

That leaves us with the middle bullet as the best guide to policy. Perhaps there is some room to maneuver here, with likely financial implications on the order of a couple hundred million dollars a year. South Korea, while already generous, could probably find a few other very specific costs to cover, perhaps for fuel for some U.S. naval deployments that come close to the peninsula, and some equipment like chemical-weapons protective gear that American forces probably need more in Korea than anywhere else.

Creative negotiators should look for some clever ways like these of ending the current impasse between Seoul and Washington. The last thing we can afford at a time of tense nuclear negotiations with North Korea, and a very volatile Northeast Asia region, and the worst Japan-South Korea relations in decades, is an unnecessary crisis between Seoul and Washington that could make an aggressor wonder if the alliance would really hold together at a time of war. Deterrence failed once in 1950 in Korea; we should not want to run that risk again.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and the director of research at the Brookings Institution in Washington and an author whose latest book is “The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War over Small Stakes.”

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