Since the beginning of the Trump Administration US allies have been walking something of a tightrope. Given the President’s Trumps strange relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, South Korea in particular has been in an especially strange place over the past three years. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump threatened to pull US forces out of South Korea if that country did not increase its funding for the US presence. More recently, the Trump Administration announced the cancellation of a series of large-scale military exercises with South Korea.
The most recent dust-up involves demands by president Trump that South Korea increase its contributions to sustaining the US military presence in that country by ~400%. The demand that South Korea pay the United States approximately $4.7 billion, which appears to have originated from the President himself, has reportedly alarmed Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as US military officials. Further, this figure was allegedly “pulled out of thin air”. Reportedly, staffers were left in a position of starting with the president’s figure and having to work backwards to justify this figure.
To be brief, nobody really disputes that the United States’ partner nations could or should help to pay some of the costs associated with US efforts to help defend their territory—this is the basic principal of burden sharing, and it has been an animating force in the US’ relations with its allies throughout the entire post-War period. That said, this figure is as alarming as it is outrageous. South Korea—and other countries that host US military personnel—do typically contribute to the overall cost of maintaining US personnel in those countries. However, this figure represents an enormous and abrupt increase in the contributions expected from South Korea.
The US regularly negotiates these contributions with allied states, which are outlined in a “Special Measures Agreement”. According to the DOD Comptroller’s office, the total cost of maintaining the US presence in South Korea in FY2020 is approximately $4.5 billion. This figure held fairly steady over the past decade, but has increased markedly in the last couple of years, as shown in the figure below. FY2019 cost estimates amounted to $3.5 billion and FY2020 estimates amount to about $4.5 billion.
South Korea is the third most costly deployment host according to the DOD. According to the most recent Special Measures Agreement, which entered into force on April 5, 2019, South Korea’s contributions to maintaining the US presence amounted to $1.0389 trillion won, or approximately $893 million. This is up from the 920 billion won (approximately $883 million) as negotiated in the 2014 round of negotiations. The FY2020 figures amount to approximately 20% of the total cost estimated by the DOD Comptroller’s office. By comparison, President Trump’s recent demands amount to well over 100% of the total cost of maintaining the US presence. It’s also worth noting that South Korean contributions amounted to a considerably higher percentage of total costs prior to the abrupt increase in costs that we see under the Trump Administration—according to these figures, about 37% in 2014. If the South Koreans are paying relatively less, it appears to be the result of US policy changes, not decreasing Korean contributions.
This isn’t news, but this kind of “negotiating” tactic is hard to take seriously. It endangers US relations with its allies, and perhaps more importantly, endangers the United States’ own position in the broader Asia-Pacific region. Critics of burden sharing arrangements often frame the issue in terms of the exploitation of US goodwill by a bunch of free-riding allies. However, beyond the fact that these allies do typically make substantial contributions to support a US presence, the US itself also benefits enormously from its military’s “forward” presence in these overseas locations. It facilitates more the more rapid deployment of military assets in response to aggression or natural disasters, as well as the forward positioning of military hardware to detect and neutralize things like, oh I don’t know, possible missile attacks directed at the US. It also facilitates improved interoperability and training between US military personnel and their counterparts in allied militaries.
In short, the US derives a number of benefits from these relationships, and the clearly right balance in any burden sharing arrangement is going to be the subject of negotiation, but making outrageous demands of long-term alliance partners such as these will likely raise serious concern about the long-term reliability of any partnership with the US. Republicans and Democrats are right to be concerned, but it’s not clear what recourse they have at the moment beyond making more public protests against such behavior. So far, such protests have yet to emerge in force.