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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Aug. 9)

Editorials from Korean Dailies 07:02 August 09, 2019

Trump's selfishness
:U.S. forces in South Korea represent shared interests

U.S. President Donald Trump has gone on Twitter again to demand more money from South Korea for the stationing of American forces here.

This came just ahead of U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper's South Korea visit. Tomorrow, Esper will hold bilateral defense talks with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, and then visit Cheong Wa Dae to meet President Moon Jae-in.

By tweeting, Trump gave Esper at least one job to do in Seoul. His visit came at a sensitive time when the Republic of Korea-U.S. alliance faces grave challenges on many fronts.

The U.S. has a plan to deploy mid-range missiles in Asia, presumably aimed at China and Russia. It also wants South Korea to participate in the U.S.-led military operation to protect ships in the strategic Strait of Hormuz amid a simmering crisis in Iran. Most of all, the security cooperation between South Korea and Japan, the key regional U.S. allies, is at risk as Seoul is tilting toward pulling out of a bilateral military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo as a countermeasure in the ongoing trade row with Japan.

These issues are expected to be on the table at Friday's meeting between the defense chiefs. For Trump, they may be not as important as the defense cost sharing problem.

In a pair of posts, Wednesday morning, Trump reiterated that Washington pays too much to cover Seoul's defense costs.

"Talks have begun to further increase payments to the United States," Trump wrote. "South Korea is a very wealthy nation that now feels an obligation to contribute to the military defense provided by the United States of America."

But he added, "The relationship between the two countries is a very good one!"

Under the current deal, signed just months ago in March, South Korea would pay 1.04 trillion won (US$915 million) this year, up 8.2 percent from last year. The deal is valid only one year, so the two sides must start negotiations soon to renew the deal. It was a stopgap agreement because there was a wide gap between the two sides over how much South Korea should pay to the U.S. Trump once said South Korea is paying only some of the $5 billion needed annually to maintain American bases there, bragging that what made it possible for Seoul to pay more was "a couple of his phone calls."

In fact, South Korea is one of the heaviest buyers of U.S. weapons in the world. According to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea purchased $7.4 billion worth of American weapons from 2008 to 2018, which represents about 67 percent of the country's total arms imports during the period.

South Korea can satisfy Trump by paying more for the upkeep of American forces; that is true. Instead, however, it will have to cut purchases of American weapons or find other ways to offset the increase in defense costs. This is a natural course of action Seoul can take.

Trump, a former real estate tycoon, may well understand that is the way it goes, but seems to be trying to boast alliance cost savings as his diplomatic achievement, possibly linked to the 2020 presidential race. But Trump should know that the U.S. has bases around the world because it also feels it is necessary. They are there because they represent common strategic interests between the host countries and the U.S.

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