[Column] Time for S. Korea to show some backbone amid US demands

Posted on : 2020-01-27 11:35 KST Modified on : 2020-01-27 11:35 KST
USFK is more about curbing China than protecting S. Korea
A protester denounces the US’ demands for increasing South Korea’s financial contribution to stationing US troops in Korea upon the arrival of James DeHart, the chief US negotiator in defense cost-sharing talks with South Korea, at Incheon International Airport on Nov. 17. (Yonhap News)
A protester denounces the US’ demands for increasing South Korea’s financial contribution to stationing US troops in Korea upon the arrival of James DeHart, the chief US negotiator in defense cost-sharing talks with South Korea, at Incheon International Airport on Nov. 17. (Yonhap News)

Ordinarily, a person as timid as me wouldn’t have dared to write a column like this. Not because I’m worried about the Americans, mind you, but because of those groups that come out of the woodwork at the slightest mention of the US. For such groups, the US is a taboo subject: even saying the name is enough to trigger eye-bulging attacks, dripping with insults. But the US’ demand for South Korea to shoulder much more of the cost of defense is changing South Koreans’ attitudes about the US to a surprising degree. Trump is shattering South Koreans’ daydreams about the US by giving them a crystal-clear education in its true nature, in a way that South Korea’s intelligentsia and media never could have done. In something of a paradox, I even feel grateful to Trump.

As I write this column, I understand that the South Korean and American envoys negotiating the 11th Special Measures Agreement (SMA), the two countries’ cost-sharing agreement, convened for the sixth time, on Jan. 14, in the sixth round of negotiations that began last year, though I haven’t heard the outcome yet. The financial burden that the Americans have requested is US$5 billion, five times the amount (about US$900 million) agreed to in the 10th SMA. Such a bill is a head scratcher even for those South Koreans who are favorably disposed to the US. Not even the far-right forces who demand lockstep submission to the US have made a peep, which is very atypical for them, probably because they’re secretly dismayed by such demands.

On top of that, Trump said in a cabinet meeting in February 2019 that he’s persuaded South Korea to cough up US$500 million more in two phone calls, a claim that he repeated recently. In August of last year, Trump argued that South Korea should take on a heavier defense burden while arrogantly boasting that “It was easier to get a billion dollars from South Korea than to get US$114.13 from a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn.” Such remarks express derision and scorn. While perhaps such contemptuous language would pass muster with other wheelers and dealers, it’s bound to raise the hackles of South Koreans, even those who are well-disposed to the US. This has been compounded by the unbelievable behavior of the current US ambassador to South Korea.

June 25 of this year will be the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, and all South Koreans – even those who are not voluntary slaves to the American will – have a moral debt to the US. I’m no exception: perhaps because I lived through the Korean War as a child, I’ve kept in mind the sacrifices of American soldiers and felt strongly indebted to them while visiting national cemeteries in Hawaii and Arlington during my travels. Anyone who reflects on the Korean War must feel gratitude for the astronomical expenses borne by the US while waging that war, not to mention the 36,000 young Americans who were killed in combat. After the armistice, American military aid continued to flow into the country; even by the time I enlisted, the South Korean military appeared to be propped up by supplies provided by the US. American aid after the armistice was a huge help in Korea’s development of democracy and economic growth, elevating it to a place where it’d grow into the world’s 12th largest economy. [the original says 10th; this is wrong]

Such thoughts are shared by nearly all older Koreans, including myself. But Trump’s demand for a huge increase in Korea’s defense burden undermines such gratitude. It fires up even cowards like me to wake up from our US-induced fantasies.

Experts argue that the SMA regime, instituted in 1991, violates the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), under which the US agrees to cover all costs pertaining to stationing forces in Korea. The US$900 million defense contribution that South Korea made in 2019 consists of three categories: labor costs for Koreans employed by the American military, construction costs, and logistical costs. The US demands for US$5 billion take a wrecking ball to that basic framework. Both sides have confirmed that the US wants the creation of new cost categories to meet the US$5 billion figure proposed by Trump.

According to US demands, the 2020 per capita labor cost is about 88 million won (US$75,322) for American soldiers and more than 130 million won (US$111,295) for civilian contractors in Korea, wages that would be effectively paid by the South Korean taxpayer. While Trump keeps repeating that South Korea is a wealthy country, it’s still struggling to create more minimum wage jobs, where workers barely make 20 million won (US$17,122) a year.

Americans basically asking for a blank check

American demands include the cost of readiness, which covers nearly all aspects of the military. That’s why experts such as Yu Yeong-jae are concerned that adding a category for readiness would be effectively writing the US a blank check. The Americans are pushing for these additional cost categories on the grounds that the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy is ultimately designed to defend the Korean Peninsula. Giving in to these demands, Yu says, will result in South Korea becoming entangled in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the goal of which is containing China. During the negotiations for the 10th SMA, 52% of Koreans were opposed to making a bigger defense contribution, even if that led to a smaller American troop presence; in the current negotiations, 96% of Koreans say the defense contribution shouldn’t be raised. It’s obvious what attitude should be adopted by a government that was installed by the people power of the “candlelit revolution.”

The question of defense cost-sharing provides us with an opportunity to reassess the current state of the US’ relations with South Korea, as well as with North Korea. I have my doubts about whether the US is genuinely committed to resolving the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. The practical approach to denuclearization, after all, would be for the two sides to implement the Singapore agreement one step at a time, while confirming each other’s progress, rather than burdening it with conditions until it finally flounders. The SOFA agreement maintains South Korea’s dignity without including any unequal clauses, doesn’t it? While the UN Command blocked the resumption of tourism to Mt. Kumgang, operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and the connection of inter-Korean highways and railroads, the South Korean government ought to have gone ahead with those projects.

The US says it will surrender wartime operational control, or OPCON, of the South Korean military, even as it attempts to cling to OPCON through the UN Command. “If South Korea is concerned that its security will be undermined in the event that the ROK-US alliance is weakened or dismantled or USFK is reduced or withdrawn, South Korea could build a Northeast Asian or East Asian community that includes the US and China,” suggested one expert who argues that South Koreans should seriously think about the reasons for the South Korea-US alliance and the presence of American troops in the country.

US House passed bill requiring minimum no. of USFK troops after Trump’s withdrawal threats

On Dec. 3, while the defense cost-sharing negotiations were underway, US House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said in a letter to the US government that “The presence of roughly 28,500 US service members on the Korean Peninsula is not solely about protecting South Korea. In fact, the primary purpose of our forward presence is to enhance US national security.” Is Smith the only one who holds that position?

Furthermore, as Choi Pil-su has observed, after Trump threatened to remove American troops from South Korea if it doesn’t increase its defense contribution by US$5 billion, the US House of Representatives responded by passing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which requires USFK to retain a strength of 28,500 troops. Isn’t it time for South Korea to show a little backbone in the negotiations? To counter Trump’s “madman” bargaining strategy of demanding a 500% increase in the cost-sharing burden, Lee Jae-bong suggests, Seoul should point out that the mission of USFK has more to do with countering and containing China than with guarding against a North Korean invasion and give the US the option of paying for its own bases or get out of the country.

The crux of the defense cost-sharing debate is South Korea’s dependence on foreign powers – it has gone so far as to surrender its wartime OPCON to another country – resulting from its inability to provide its own national defense. It’s time for that to change. We should view American pressure over cost-sharing as a blessing in disguise. If Trump threatens to pull out American troops, we shouldn’t submit to his threats, but base our decision on the perspectives of autonomy and national defense. We need to stop humiliating the nation by clinging to foreign countries that are pushing for a steeper defense contribution. Let us continue to walk toward our goals of peace and reconciliation, giving new life to our ancestors’ dream of autonomous and independent unification.

By Lee Man-yeol, former head of the National Institute of Korean History

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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