Burden-sharing talks are distracting Washington and Seoul from the North Korean threat
Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation. Victor Cha is senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University.
The unexplained periodic absences of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over the past two months are troubling. Presumed health ailments for this obese smoker and drinker could leave his nuclear-armed dictatorship potentially leaderless overnight.
When Kim does briefly show up in public, however, the news is no less settling. In his first reported appearance after three weeks around May 23, he vowed to boost North Korea’s nuclear war capabilities against the United States. Meanwhile, we’re seeing many signs that the global covid-19 pandemic has seeped into the isolated country, creating a potential health crisis of regime-rattling proportions given a failed public health infrastructure. You would think that under these circumstances, the U.S.-South Korean alliance would be focused like a laser beam on these threats. You would be wrong.
Rather than focusing on near- and long-term threats posed by the North Korean regime, Washington and Seoul are entirely absorbed by a petty dispute over who pays for what. Every five years, the two countries negotiate how much South Korea should pay for the non-personnel costs of stationing 28,500 U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula. But now those talks have been hijacked by a U.S. president who wants his ally to pay more than 400 percent more than the previous agreement of $920 million per year, which represented an 8 percent increase over prior years. Failed negotiations to close this gap in April resulted in the furloughing of thousands of workers on U.S. bases. A recent reported South Korean offer of a 13 percent increase, the largest in the history of the alliance, was rejected out of hand by President Trump after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper had reached an agreement with their South Korean counterparts.
Trump’s logic is not hard to understand. In a 1990 interview in Playboy magazine, then-businessman Trump stated his belief that allies free-ride off the U.S. security commitment while fleecing Americans on trade; his rhetoric since then has remained amazingly consistent — and it has stayed that way since he became commander in chief. Moreover, he wants to play hardball with South Korea because similar cost-sharing agreements are to be negotiated with allies Japan and NATO over the coming year.
Perhaps it is Trump’s nature to obsess about tactical negotiations over money. But this particular dispute comes at a larger strategic cost. Research from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington shows that while the burden-sharing talks gain little attention in the United States, they are undermining support for the alliance in South Korea. Social media interaction with anti-alliance chat groups and YouTube videos in Korea reaches all-time highs whenever there is a news story about the failed burden-sharing negotiations.
This is not in U.S. interests. South Korea is not only a military ally of the United States, one that has fought with us in every war since the Korean War. Seoul is also a key partner on a host of global issues including climate change, nonproliferation, development assistance and global pandemics. Indeed, when Washington was short of coronavirus test kits, South Korea, which has responded immeasurably better to the pandemic than us, immediately prioritized the United States over eight other countries and dispatched hundreds of thousands of test kits, including half a million to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in Maryland.
Washington and Seoul need to get away from the tactical and focus on the strategic. The two allies (as well as Japan) need to coordinate contingency plans for any potential instability in North Korea resulting from a leadership or health crisis that China might exploit to assert a sphere of influence over the Korean Peninsula.
New commercial satellite imagery published by CSIS last month shows that the primary North Korean facility providing core fuel for its nuclear programs is operating at full tilt, lending credence to the North Korean leader’s proclamations this week of an enhanced nuclear capability. The United States and South Korea need to enhance deterrent capabilities in the face of North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear weapons program, which has only expanded despite three summits between Trump and Kim.
Moreover, Washington and Seoul need to prepare to counter more provocations from North Korea in the coming year. North Korea has a penchant for ramping up provocations during U.S. presidential and midterm elections in order to garner additional attention. The approaching U.S. election virtually rules out any new summit diplomacy between Trump and Kim.
Trump may still look to China to help him cut an eleventh-hour deal with his purported friend Kim to freeze further weapons testing until after the election in return for sanctions-lifting. But that would be a bad move born out of two base motivations: politics and desperation.
The U.S. president would be better off reaching a cost-sharing deal with Seoul and working together with all of America’s allies on a strategy to face the security challenges ahead.