Trump’s talk of flouting NATO promises sparks apprehension in Seoul

Posted on : 2024-02-14 17:15 KST Modified on : 2024-02-14 17:38 KST
While president, Trump threatened to pull American troops out of South Korea as a means of forcing the South to increase its defense-sharing contribution
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event on Feb. 10 amid his run for Republican nominee. (AFP/Yonhap)
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event on Feb. 10 amid his run for Republican nominee. (AFP/Yonhap)

Former US president and contender for the Republican Party’s nomination Donald Trump suggested over the weekend that he would not fulfill the US’ defense requirements for countries that don’t spend at least 2% of their GDP on national defense, as NATO agreed in 2014. It seems likely that not only European countries but also South Korea will need to prepare for the security contingencies presented by a second Trump presidency.

Trump sparked serious friction with US allies in Europe and Asia under the banner of “America First” during the four years of his presidency, which began in January 2017. In Europe, he rashly threatened to cut the US troop presence in Germany, which wasn’t abiding by its 2% defense spending commitment. And in East Asia, he repeatedly made outrageous demands that South Korea and Japan, both key US allies, increase their defense cost-sharing contributions by as much as fivefold.

In regard to the Korean Peninsula, Trump seemed to be nearing a breakthrough on the North Korean nuclear issue over the course of three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018-2019. But many were shocked when he unilaterally called off joint military exercises with South Korea, without prior discussion, on the grounds that the exercises were too expensive.

Trump also threatened to pull American troops out of South Korea as a means of forcing the South to increase its defense-sharing contribution, just as he’d done in Europe.

In his 2022 memoir “A Sacred Oath,” former Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote that Trump “would complain that the South Koreans were ‘horrible to deal with’ and pressed multiple times for us to withdraw US forces.”

He went on: “[then Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo jumped in once to help, saying, ‘Mr. President, you should make that [withdrawing US forces from Korea] a second-term priority.’”

So if Trump prevails in the presidential election this November, he’s likely to ask for another huge increase in cost-sharing during the negotiations for the South Korea-US Special Measures Agreement, which will conclude in 2025, and to threaten a troop reduction or withdrawal as leverage to achieve that goal. Another step Trump could take to further pressure Seoul is to back out of the Biden administration’s promise made in the Washington Declaration in April 2023 to periodically deploy strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula.

The years that Trump was toying with the options of withdrawing US troops from Korea were 2018-2020, the very years that the Korean Peninsula peace process was being sustained through dialogue between North Korea and the US and between North and South Korea aimed at the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That’s how Trump managed to navigate the crisis without a serious security vacuum despite his peculiar behavior.

But things today are much different than they were then. North Korea-US dialogue and inter-Korean dialogue have both been at a complete standstill for more than four years now, since North Korea and the US last held working-level talks in Stockholm, Sweden, in October 2019.

After codifying the doctrine of preemptive use of nuclear weapons in September 2022, North Korea has been ratcheting up its nuclear threat level by test launching missiles of various types and ranges. Then last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced a complete termination of inter-Korean relations in his policy speech before the 10th session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly.

If Trump, in such a perilous situation, blackmails Seoul into footing even more of the defense bill by going back on the Biden administration’s pledge of extended deterrence, South Korea may well find itself forced to accept his demands. That could be a serious crisis for the “values diplomacy” espoused by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has gone “all in” on strengthening the alliance with the US, as well as trilateral cooperation with the US and Japan.

After Trump’s remarks shocked and frightened people around the world, major figures in the Republican Party hastily sought to downplay what he had said.

“He told the story about how he used leverage [on the issue of cost-sharing] to get people [in NATO] to step up to the plate and become more active. I have zero concern because he’s been president before,” US Senator Marco Rubio said during an appearance on CNN.

By Hong Seock-jae, staff reporter

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