President Donald Trump’s announcement that he will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam for more nuclear talks wasn’t the only big news for the Korean peninsula this week.
Quietly, with none of the pomp of the State of the Union address, U.S. and South Korean negotiators reached a new deal “in principle” for sharing the costs of the tens of thousands of American troops who have been based in South Korea for nearly seven decades, a State Department spokesperson told me on condition of anonymity. The previous deal expired in late 2018, after the South Korean government balked at U.S. demands for a huge hike in Seoul’s contribution.
A lot is on the line in this arrangement. Ever since the 1953 cease-fire that halted the Korean War, the United States has maintained forces in South Korea to deter North Korean aggression, and as a counterweight to Russia and China.
An unsettled spat with South Korea over money would have put a damper on the second Trump-Kim summit scheduled for February 27–28, especially because South Korean President Moon Jae In has been the principal mediator when diplomacy between the two leaders has faltered.
Nevertheless, it’s a tenuous resolution that could easily unravel and stoke tensions between the United States and South Korea, given that the deal appears expressly designed to be fleeting (rather than long term)—to keep the military alliance in a state of flux at the very moment when America’s allies around the world are doubting its commitment, while adversaries angle to exploit those doubts.
Renewals of military agreements between the United States and its allies, which revolve around who pays for what, have never been all sunshine and rainbows. But they were routine because they were premised on the idea that the defense of those allies was a defense of U.S. interests. The logic was that the U.S. derived considerable benefit from having troops stationed in places like Japan or Germany, and should therefore shoulder a corresponding share of the cost.
In challenging that basic premise, and signaling that even something as core to America’s post–World War II identity as membership in NATO isn’t sacrosanct, Trump has turned burden-sharing negotiations like the present one with South Korea into something decidedly out of the ordinary: a testament to how he’s seeking to transform the United States’ role in the world.
In the case of South Korea, talks for a new special-measures agreement (SMA) stalled in December when the Trump administration abruptly demanded that Seoul shell out around one and a half times its current contribution for the 28,500 American troops deployed there. At one point in the negotiations, the U.S. was reportedly requesting nearly the full amount of $2 billion, which largely goes toward wages for Korean workers at U.S. military installations.
On Thursday, Lee Soo Hyuck, a lawmaker with South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party, indicated that the United States had ultimately relented on the numbers, with Seoul set to only incrementally increase its share of the cost to a figure less than $1 billion.
Yet he also announced that South Korean officials had acceded to another U.S. demand introduced late in the process: The pact will last just one year, rather than five years like the prior agreement. (When asked about these terms, the State Department spokesperson declined to “discuss details of ongoing bilateral consultations.” The office of South Korea’s president did not respond to requests for comment.)
Imagine carpooling to work with a friend for decades, checking in every few years on how much gas money you should chip in, only for the friend to one day slam on the brakes, ask you to cover most of the cost of the commute, and when you demur, insist on a new weekly check-in to encourage hikes in your contribution. Those drives would get tense fast, and you might start wondering how much longer you’ll have a ride to the office. That’s a bit like what’s happened in the U.S.–South Korea alliance in recent months.
It’s unclear whether the Trump administration will continue to pursue one-year contracts beyond this one. But given that the latest round of talks has dragged on for close to a year, a one-year time frame means that “almost as soon as you sign the first [agreement], you have to then start negotiations on the next one,” Bruce Klingner, a former Korea analyst at the CIA who’s now with the Heritage Foundation, told me.
The Trump administration might view an annual negotiation as “leverage to increase Seoul’s defense cost-sharing,” and it’s “quite possible” that the administration could call on South Korea to pay the full cost of maintaining U.S. troops in the country, said Moon Chung In, a foreign-policy adviser to South Korea’s president who told me he was speaking in his capacity as a professor at Yonsei University.
If the United States goes that route, Moon noted, the challenge will be for both countries to arrive at some common understanding of how to calculate Seoul’s contributions for the upkeep of U.S. forces in the country.
Moon said that if the Trump administration were to press South Korea for new ways to cover the costs of the alliance in the coming years, he hoped that these would not include salaries for American soldiers and expenses associated with their weapons and equipment, all of which are not currently governed by the SMA. “If that is the case, South Koreans are not likely to accommodate such [a] request, because American forces in South Korea would then be like mercenary [forces], not [an] alliance force,” he told me.
He added that he didn’t expect Trump to slash U.S. forces in South Korea as part of a deal reached during his next summit with Kim, as many Korea-watchers in Washington and Seoul fear. For evidence, Moon pointed to a recent interview in which the president said he had “no plans” to do so. (Granted, in that same interview, Trump inflated the number of American troops in the country, described their presence there as “expensive,” and mused that “maybe someday” he would take them out.) “I trust [Trump’s] words,” Moon said, “and therefore I do not worry about it.”
North Korea’s leaders have not specifically called for a U.S. military drawdown as part of their nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration. But they’ve stated that they see U.S. forces in South Korea as an obstacle to peace, and that they define the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” as encompassing the U.S. withdrawing from the region all elements of its military presence that pose a nuclear threat to North Korea in order for Pyongyang to consider giving up its nuclear weapons.
Plenty of American presidents have modified the U.S. military presence in South Korea as geopolitical realities have shifted. As he sought to end the Vietnam War and reconcile with China, for example, Richard Nixon withdrew tens of thousands of U.S. troops and prodded Seoul to “assume more of the burden of its own defense.” George H. W. Bush removed U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from South Korean territory at the end of the Cold War. His son diverted a combat brigade from South Korea to Iraq.
What makes this moment different is that Trump’s view of the value of the United States’ alliance system is unlike any of his predecessors’ in the post–World War II period. One of his most consistently held convictions, dating back to the 1980s, is that allies are getting rich at America’s expense and should either pay a hefty price for U.S. military protection or lose that protection and defend themselves. And while the president might have started putting this belief into practice with South Korea, it is unlikely to stop there: Negotiations on a new cost-sharing agreement with Japan, which hosts more U.S. troops than any other country, are on the horizon.
As for South Korea, the State Department spokesperson noted that the nation “has stood as an exemplary ally, partner, and friend of the United States” for almost 70 years, and that the U.S. likewise remains committed to the security of South Korea.
But Klingner told me that the White House’s sudden, steep demands during the SMA negotiations were “in line with the president’s view of alliances as transactional relationships, as opposed to military relationships built on common values and common history,” like fighting together during the Korean War.
The motto for the U.S.–South Korea military command, he said, “is katchi kapshida” (“We go together”), “not ‘We go together, if I get enough money as reimbursement.’”