President Trump ran for office arguing America isn’t fairly compensated for the defense we provide our wealthy allies. The current focus of this campaign pledge is South Korea.
Under a preliminary deal reached last week, South Korea will boost the annual payment it makes to support the U.S. military presence there from $800 million to about $1 billion. To the many critics who accuse President Trump of tearing down the international order, even requesting more money from allies is wrong. But South Korea should pay substantively more.
Since 1991, an arrangement called the “Special Measures Agreement” has determined how much South Korea would pay for America’s military deployment in that country. With the expiration of the previous Special Measures Agreement in 2018, the Trump administration has a lot of leverage to force Seoul to share more of the defense burden.
Right now, America spends more than $3 billion per year defending South Korea, according to the Pentagon. About $2 billion accounts for the approximately 28,000 troops we have stationed there, and the remaining $1 billion is used to maintain our military equipment. The true cost to U.S. taxpayers is substantially higher, as the official total leaves out spending at home that goes to supporting overseas forces.
On top of the money America spends, South Korea pays an additional $800 million for America’s military presence, which means the “total cost” of America’s defense commitment in South Korea is at least $3.8 billion annually. That means South Korea pays only 21 percent of the total, with U.S. taxpayers picking up the rest of the tab.
But getting the South Koreans to pay more isn’t easy. Last year, going behind Trump’s back, “U.S. officials” tried to negotiate a deal whereby South Korea’s contribution would be increased, but still come under $1 billion. Trump found out about the South Koreans’ lowball request and demanded that negotiators get Seoul to pay double their current contributions—$1.6 billion instead of $800 million. Even then, South Korea would pay just 42 percent of the official cost of the U.S. military presence there.
Now, the same U.S. officials uninterested in Trump’s campaign promises came out with a new announcement: South Korean and American negotiators had tentatively agreed that South Korea would now contribute $1 billion per year. That’s just 26 percent of the cost.
It remains unclear whether Trump will sign off on this number, or ask again for more. Either way, it is striking that the most “radical” proposal of South Korea paying $1.6 billion—put forward by President Trump and scoffed at by our foreign policy elite—wouldn’t even require South Korea to pay for half the cost of America’s military presence to defend their own country.
Like U.S. diplomats, Congress seems content to keep picking up the South Koreans’ tab. A defense-spending bill passed last year seeks to limit the president’s ability to bring U.S. troops below 22,000, no matter what the South Koreans pay or what happens with negotiations with North Korea.
But requiring South Korea to pay at least 40 percent of the cost, if not much more, is both good sense and good strategy. The U.S. military does not need to take on so much of the security burden for Asia. It is good sense because South Korea already has the world’s 11th-largest economy and a military of more than half a million personnel. The Republic of Korea’s military spending is also sizable, coming in at about $40 billion, 10th in the world, and a substantial boost is planned.
This wealth and military capability should provide the South about all the security it needs against the North, which has an economy roughly 40 times smaller, and military that is vastly inferior despite its size. Yet Seoul is still reluctant to take on more responsibility for its defense.
More important, South Korea’s dependence on America also hampers America’s geopolitical interests in the region. For example, because South Korea can heavily lean on America’s security blanket, it can remain at loggerheads with a would-be natural ally, Japan, because of long-held disputes over the atrocities imperialist Japan committed 80 years ago.
And because America’s military is entrenched in South Korea, China and North Korea are pushed into each other’s arms. Without such a firm American presence, China and South Korea might be on a better standing, isolating North Korea unless behavior significantly changed. Or alternatively, North Korea might be much more willing to peel away from China’s orbit and join its neighbors in resisting Chinese largess, land grabs, and bullying.
In other words, a healthy realignment is overdue. But the lack of burden-sharing is keeping it from happening, harming long-term American security. Ideally, instead of South Korea paying for our forces as Trump is currently seeking, true burden sharing would shift more of the burden to our allies. Instead of a massive ground force in Asia, America should focus its investments on the Navy to ensure command of the global commons, including in Asia.
Importantly, burden shifting doesn’t mean removing deterrence, or that constructive engagement with the region ends. America’s strong Navy and increased allied investments in their own defensive capabilities, such as anti-missile systems, can achieve our defensive aims in the region.
For example, the United States can reduce its ground forces in Korea, maybe as part of a deal with North Korea. U.S. naval and air power would still maul any North Korean attacking force that the South Koreans somehow cannot handle. We don’t need thousands of troops on the ground to deter potential North Korean or Chinese aggression.
Burden sharing—either shifting the burden of South Korea’s defense on to South Koreans or asking them pay more of the cost of defending them—is not abandonment. Given the South’s capability and the North’s threat, it is common sense. The health of the alliance is a means to an end. The United States allied with South Korea for U.S. prosperity and security, not out of charity or to create a permanent dependent.
With the Indo-Pacific growing in strategic importance as Asia generates a greater share of global economic output, the United States should shrewdly seek ways to secure our interests. That entails a modern, strong Navy; fortified allies; a commitment to international commerce; and far greater burden-sharing.