Exploiting divides between the United States and South Korea on North Korea policy is standard operating procedure for Pyongyang. The cancellation of the Trump-Kim summit helps to further that goal. But the most serious fault lines for the US-Korea alliance lie within the alliance itself. Donald Trump’s treatment of South Korea is a throwback to a time when South Korea was poorer, weaker, and less influential. If it continues, it will lead South Koreans from across the political spectrum to question not just US bases in South Korea but the necessity of the alliance.
The South Korean public is generally distrusting of the North Korean regime. Kim Jong Un is the least favored leader in the region, averaging 0.77 on a 0-10 scale from August 2016 through November 2017. The next closest leader was Japan’s Shinzo Abe with an average score of 1.8 over that same period. In 2014, fewer than 10 percent thought North Korea would ever abandon its nuclear programs.
These views also color policy preferences of the South Korean public. In a 2015 survey, nearly 70 percent opposed resuming economic aid to North Korea and a plurality at that time preferred South Korea to maintain a hardline stance in its policy toward the North.
Despite this, the South Korean public also supported pursuing a summit with North Korea in 2015—eight in 10 said that a summit was necessary. On April 27, 2018 the third inter-Korean summit took place, and results from polling done in its wake show a sharp swing in favor of North Korea and Kim Jong Un.
In a poll conducted in early May, 69 percent reported some level of trust in North Korea’s intention to denuclearize. In a separate poll, 58 percent said that they expected North Korea to stick to the key points of the Panmunjum Declaration. In that same survey, 65 percent said the summit improved their view of Kim Jong Un.
But that goodwill was likely short-lived. In mid-May North Korea returned to its habit of issuing threats. It first threatened to cancel the June 12 summit with Donald Trump and soon followed with the possibility of cutting off all communications with South Korea. In the short-term, this will ensure that South Korea and the United States continue to deal with a mutual challenge. But this will only paper over the deep fault lines that exist within the US-South Korea alliance exposed by the Trump administration.
Analyses of the US-Korea alliance often note that support for the alliance with the United States among the South Korean public is at or near historic highs. Support often approaches 95 percent. But a key point is overlooked—the operative word in the survey question is better translated as “necessary” rather than “support.” If the threat of North Korea, which is viewed as the primary reason for the alliance, is removed then attitudes on the necessity of the alliance will face significant downward pressure.
But a peace regime need not be reached for the South Korean public to begin to question relations with Washington. A United States that treats allies with disdain has already begun this process in Europe, and it will do the same in South Korea. North Korea’s actions will then act as an accelerant or a braking mechanism.
The Trump administration has already undertaken three missteps in its relations with South Korea, and a fourth may be on its way. The first two—taken within the context of Trump’s America First platform—have begun to create the perception in South Korea that the US-South Korea alliance is not one of partnership but one of coercion. The third convinced the South Korean public that the United States was ready and willing to sacrifice much of Seoul in a conflict. The fourth, if handled inappropriately, may cement that perception. Given recent history, there is every reason to expect that it will be handled inappropriately.
The first was the handling of a US missile defense battery (THAAD) deployed in South Korea. From its very deployment—rolled off of US aircraft literally under the cover of dark as the sitting president was facing massive public protests—the system rankled South Korea. China, unhappy with the system’s placement, then targeted South Korea with unofficial sanctions, costing the South Korean economy an estimated $7.5 billion in 2017.
To add insult to injury, Trump said the $1 billion THAAD battery—tasked with defending US forces in Korea, not Korean population centers—should be paid for by Seoul. This was not part of the agreement for deployment. Then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was forced to walk back Trump’s statement.
The second was Trump’s targeting of South Korea for a renegotiation of the bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries—known as KORUS. As a candidate, President Trump singled out the KORUS FTA as a bad deal negotiated under previous administrations, making it ripe for renegotiation—or unilateral withdrawal—should he become president. Then, as president, he did indeed force a renegotiation of the deal.
Ultimately, that renegotiation saw the United States gain little. Moreover, the “negotiate or else” manner in which it was approached sent a demeaning message to a close US ally. In a November 2017 poll, 53 percent of South Koreans supported taking Trump up on the “or else” option and favored scrapping the trade agreement if the US demanded a renegotiation. The South Korean government, however, took a pragmatic approach and secured a deal that changed very little from the original.
The third was the Trump administration’s drumbeat to war in late 2017. The president’s calls for “fire and fury” broke harshly from American behavior of the past. Traditionally, North Korea was viewed as the actor injecting uncertainty into the region. But with President Trump’s language, the United States became the biggest question mark. This was aided by statements like those from South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said that if people died in a conflict with North Korea at least they would be dying “over there.” The possibility of conflict on the Korean Peninsula became very real, and it was perceived that it was US aggression that would bring about that conflict. Those in Seoul were being thrust directly into the line of fire by an ally.
On top of all of this, a negotiation on sharing military costs is now underway between the United States and South Korea. If handled inappropriately, it could touch on all the sensitivities of the South Korean public, and do longer-term damage to attitudes towards the US-South Korea alliance.
The Special Measures Agreement (SMA)—informally known as burden sharing—determines how much South Korea contributes to support US forces on its soil. Under the current deal, South Korean pays roughly $850 million per year, 42 percent of the total cost. However, this total omits the cost of the land which is home to US forces in Seoul. Were it included, it would bring Korea’s total contribution to nearly 80 percent based on an estimate produced by the Wall Street Journal.
But Mr. Trump is not satisfied. He previously stated that allies should pay 100 percent of the costs, and if allies are unwilling to do this then US forces should be removed. More recently, he reportedly asked the Pentagon to review options for drawing down troops in South Korea.
His typically maximalist approach carried over into the SMA negotiations. The United States introduced a new request to the negotiations—that South Korea help pay for the deployment of strategic forces in the region, including those currently based in Guam. According to the US position, these assets are part of the forces that help defend South Korea and therefore should be included in the SMA. The South Korean delegation strongly disagrees.
These types of negotiations have always been sensitive in South Korea. Part of that sensitivity is real and part of it is by design. South Korean government officials have long used the possibility of anti-American protests in Seoul as leverage in negotiations with the United States.
But given past statements, and more important, past actions of President Trump, there should be very real concern. SMA negotiations are held amidst great secrecy out of concern that it could seriously damage public perception of the United States in the country. It is unlikely that this round of negotiations will follow that same path. An ill-timed, poorly worded Twitter missive that demands South Korean pay up “or else”, will force the negotiations into the court of public opinion, derailing the carefully guarded process.
For South Koreans, this outcome will recall a time when the relationship was far more unequal than it is today. South Korea has made great strides in its contributions not only to the alliance, but to upholding the global order created by the United States. Seeing those contributions dismissed, many South Koreans will reevaluate the alliance with the United States. But this questioning will have two new features.
First, the reevaluation will come from a broad spectrum of the South Korean public. The political left has long wanted a return to greater South Korean autonomy. But moderate conservatives who have long supported the alliance and are in their 40s and 50s will also begin to question its value. At the same time, far-right conservatives are already discussing how the US alliance has prevented South Korea from taking the steps necessary to defend itself. Given their support for South Korea obtaining its own nuclear arsenal, the implications are clear. The best such example came this week from a former South Korean national security adviser. That a known North Korea hawk is entertaining the idea of a partial US troop withdrawal should sound alarm bells in Washington.
The beginnings of this movement are hinted at in recent polling. In a poll conducted in mid-May, 44 percent of respondents wanted to continue the stationing of US troops at the current level. But a majority (52 percent) favored with a drawdown in troops with continued basing (25 percent) or a phased complete withdrawal of US forces (27 percent). The revelation that Trump unilaterally cancelled the summit with Kim without first notifying the South Korean government will only reinforce the growing bloc questioning the value of the alliance.
Second, this reevaluation will not come in the form of the flag-burning anti-Americanism last seen in 2002. That period in South Korean history has largely passed. Instead, it will be a relatively silent sea change. The South Korean public will decide it may be better off without an ally that coerces it into hefty payments for military protection, uses its security leverage to demand unilateral renegotiations of already-ratified agreements, and then stands in the way of finding peace on the Korean Peninsula. That type of relationship is one that may lead South Koreans to believe they will be better off not only with no US forces based in Korea but without the United States at all.