Trump’s Penny-Pinching Dooms His Korean Diplomacy

The U.S. president stumbled into rare success with Pyongyang. Now he’s screwing it up.

U.S. President Donald Trump, right and South Korean President Moon Jae-in
U.S. President Donald Trump, right and South Korean President Moon Jae-in hold a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 23. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump finally decided to get tough in Korea. Unfortunately, the toughness has been directed not at the murderous dictatorship in the northern half of the peninsula, to whom he haplessly continues to implore to “get the deal done,” but at South Korea, one of the most important U.S. allies in Asia. For the pleasure of hosting the 28,500 U.S. troops located closest to Pyongyang and Beijing, Trump is demanding South Korea roughly quintuple its defense contribution to the tune of $4.7 billion in 2020, threatening to cause a disastrous and irreversible damage to U.S. interests in Asia.

Not too long ago, Trump’s North Korea diplomacy was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise abysmal foreign-policy record. In the 18 months between early 2018 and mid-2019, Trump broke new ground in the relationship. On June 12, 2018, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to hold a summit meeting with a North Korean leader. Trump was also the first sitting U.S. president to step onto North Korean soil, when he walked across the military demarcation line during the impromptu third meeting with leader Kim Jong Un at Panmunjom in June. There was plenty of heady talk that the United States would finally begin to transform its relationship with North Korea, formally ending the nearly 70-year-old Korean War and taking initial steps to denuclearize North Korea. But as it turns out, while only Trump could go to North Korea (however briefly), he could also screw up everything that followed.

There were reasons to be hopeful at the time, even if you didn’t buy into Trump’s self-proclaimed skills in deal-making. However inadvertently and clumsily, a U.S. president was trying something new with North Korea. The top-down approach of having summits first, then negotiations later, was arguably effective in dealing an authoritarian country like North Korea in which front line negotiators received their mandate from the leader. With the Panmunjom meeting in June, for example, Trump injected a new momentum into the working-level talks that had been languishing since the failed Hanoi summit in February, resulting in a fresh round of negotiations in Stockholm in October.The continued U.S. sanctions dashed any chance for inter-Korean cooperation projects.

Another opportune factor was Trump’s timely pairing with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. A savvy diplomat, Moon skillfully nudged the United States and North Korea from the brink of war in 2017 and to the negotiating table. Moon also offered a new vision for North Korea’s denuclearization that was at once daring and practical—the idea of a “peace regime” in the Korean Peninsula, in which North Korea’s denuclearization would be achieved within the greater context of establishing meaningful cooperation and exchanges between the two Koreas. There were moments when Moon’s vision of a peace regime seemed to gain purchase within the Trump administration. Special Representative Stephen Biegun, for example, spoke of the plan to “transform relations” between Washington and Pyongyang and “work towards a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” in his keynote speech for the Carnegie Endowment in March.

But Trump’s North Korea diplomacy never recovered from the Hanoi summit, as the renewed talks in October went nowhere. Although hope springs eternal, the spring is now barely a trickle. Pyongyang slapped down Trump’s latest offer, responding to his Twitter invitation by stating: “We will no longer give the U.S. president something to boast about for nothing in return.” With the ongoing impeachment investigation directly implicating much of the State Department, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Trump administration is even more distracted and confused than usual.

Back in April, Pyongyang gave Washington a deadline by the end of the year, ominously warning it would “explore a new path” if the two countries could not come to an agreement—a threat many experts interpret as the intent to resume nuclear weapons and long-range missiles testing. David Stilwell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia who was visiting Tokyo on Nov. 6, revealed he did not know about the deadline until a journalist told him at a press conference.

Critics of Trump’s North Korea diplomacy have claimed the president simply lacked the requisite focus to engage with the nitty-gritty of denuclearization negotiations, where detail reigns supreme. While the criticism is valid, the ironic truth is that it would have been preferable for Trump to disengage even more. Trump could have simply outsourced the hard work to Moon Jae-in and let the South Koreans implement the peace regime—for example, through partial sanctions relief and inter-Korean economic cooperation in exchange for initial steps toward denuclearization, such as the closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Moon repeatedly hinted at this possibility of implementing his vision and letting Trump take credit, by suggesting Trump deserved a Nobel Peace Prize and asking Trump to “utilize South Korea” as the inducement toward denuclearizing North Korea. But Trump could not even properly get out of the way, and the continued U.S. sanctions dashed any chance for inter-Korean cooperation projects.Trump’s North Korea diplomacy never recovered from the Hanoi summit, as the renewed talks in October went nowhere.

But at least in one diplomatic area in the Korean Peninsula, Trump has demonstrated a laser-like focus: shaking down South Korea for having a security relationship with the United States, including U.S. troops on the ground, to the tune of $4.7 billion. It is an outrageous demand, utterly without justification. There is some validity to the claim that U.S. allies have not generally pulled their weight on defense, but that cannot be said of South Korea. It spent 2.6 percent of its GDP in 2018 on its defense budget, outpacing NATO’s 2 percent benchmark, Germany’s 1.2 percent, and Japan’s 0.9 percent. South Korea currently has a one of the top 10 largest defense budgets in the world at over $40 billion and is on track to reach the top six by 2022.

A big chunk of that budget goes straight to the United States and its military. South Korea contributed about $923 million this year to cover the cost of hosting U.S. troops, estimated to be approximately $1.5 billion. That $923 million figure does not include the $10 billion that the country spent to build the largest overseas U.S. military base  in Pyeongtaek—the “largest power projection platform in the Pacific,” according to the U.S. Army—for which South Korea does not charge rent. Nor does the figure include the $13 billion that South Korea spent on U.S. weaponry and military equipment in the last four years. In fact, until late 2018, the U.S. military did not even use all the money South Korea had contributed.

Regardless, the Trump administration is demanding a fivefold increase in costs with a boorishness that it rarely displayed in dealing with North Korea. From the cost-sharing negotiations with South Korea that was scheduled for two days, the top U.S. negotiator James DeHart walked out after only 80 minutes of discussion. According to South Korean negotiators, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Atul Keshap pointed out South Korea had national health insurance and a high-speed train network but the United States did not, implying absurdly that the United States was not able to build infrastructure or provide social welfare programs because it was spending too much money defending South Korea.

Around the same time, U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris summoned to his residence Assemblywoman Lee Hye-hoon, the chair of South Korean National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee, to harangue her about increasing the defense contribution. So brusque was Harris—who reportedly said the phrase “$5 billion” some 20 times in their 30-minute conversation—that Lee, a steadfastly pro-U.S. conservative, came away insulted: “I have met many ambassadors for several decades but never experienced anything like this.” The South Korean public’s distaste for Trump’s demands is bipartisan and overwhelming, as 96 percent of the public opposed the hike in a recent poll.Losing South Korea as an ally would be akin to losing West Germany in the early days of the Cold War.

Congressmen Adam Smith and Eliot Engel were correct when they said “the primary purpose of our forward presence [in South Korea] is to enhance U.S. national security” in their recent joint letter to the State Department and the Department of Defense. Should North Korea launch a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile toward the United States, for example, the Osan Air Base just north of Pyeongtaek can detect the launch within seconds rather than minutes. The concern that this may cause South Korea to join China’s orbit may be overblown, as South Korea withstood billions of dollars of economic damage when China sanctioned it for hosting the U.S. military’s THAAD missile defense system. (With no help from Americans, it must be said.) But obviously, this can only serve to damage the U.S.-South Korean alliance, one of the bedrock relationships of the United States in Asia. In a world where the increasingly aggressive and authoritarian China is emerging as the chief rival of the United States, losing South Korea as an ally would be akin to losing West Germany in the early days of the Cold War.

The irony is that Trump’s drive to squeeze more pennies out of South Korea will likely negate what little progress he has made in denuclearizing North Korea. As a result of the U.S. demand, both liberals and conservatives in South Korea are floating the idea of “more for more”: paying more in defense contributions in exchange for being able to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, which the United States prohibited it from doing in order to avoid escalating military tensions. It is not difficult to imagine the Trump administration, penny wise and pound foolish, agreeing to this proposal. Attempting to denuclearize North Korea is difficult enough already; imagine trying that with a nuclear-armed South Korea.

Distressingly, that wouldn’t even be the worst of it. A nuclear South Korea is all but certain to push Japan into developing nuclear weapons. This, in turn, would further provoke China and North Korea to increase their nuclear arsenals. Taiwan may well jump into fray by restarting its nuclear program. This could end in a nuclear arms race involving virtually every country in Northeast Asia, which includes the world’s second, third, 12th, and 20th largest economies. A world in which Trump aggressively blunders into United States’ withdrawal of the security guarantee of its East Asian allies will be one of nuclear proliferation on an unprecedented scale.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.