Seoul resists Trump’s demands for $1.2 billion a year to keep US troops on the peninsula

Julian Ryall
US Army soldiers and South Korean soldiers take their position during a demonstration at the Rodriquez Multi-Purpose Range Complex in Pocheon, north of Seoul, South Korea. - AP

The United States is demanding that South Korea pay an annual $1.2 billion (£918 million) to continue stationing troops on the peninsula, an increase of more than 40 percent on the amount that Seoul presently pays towards the 28,500 US troops deployed in the South.

Washington’s demand, put to officials in Seoul during their latest round of negotiations on the issue in December, was refused by the South Korean government - although the US ambassador to Seoul has since reportedly hinted that Washington may choose to interpret the two nations’ security treaty differently if it is not accepted. 

That position, leaked to the domestic media, has triggered anger in South Korea, where the government has indicated it is able to pay a maximum of $886 million to keep the US forces in place. 

It is also being reported that the request passed on by Harry Harris, the US ambassador, was unexpected and came shortly after President Donald Trump openly criticised Washington’s allies for relying on the US to pay for their defence. 

“We are substantially subsidising the militaries of many very rich countries all over the world while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the US and our taxpayers on trade”, the president said in a tweet in December. 

An editorial in The Korean Times on Thursday accused the US of delivering an “ultimatum” to Seoul

Pointing out that Washington had not previously requested such a sharp increase in Seoul’s contributions, the paper said, “The demand is excessive”. 

“More serious is that the Trump administration is trying to use the South Korea-US Mutual Defence Treaty as leverage to force its ally to shoulder well over half the total costs”. 

Ambassador Harris’ demand “might sound like blackmail or a threat to scrap the mutual defence pact unless Seoul accepts the US demand”, it added. 

President Trump has a track record of “setting the bar very high” in international discussions on trade and security, said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University. 

“There seems to be a huge gap in Mr Trump’s understanding of just what these funds are spent on, but I am sure that the national security establishment will understand that it is much cheaper to take on this burden than to have a conflict on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. 

Progress in the discussions will be closely watched by Japan and the other member states of NATO, he said, as Mr Trump has also accused those allies of failing to pay for their own defence while simultaneously taking economic advantage of the US. 

The South Korean government has declined to comment officially on the US demands on the grounds that the discussions are ongoing. 

Seoul has found an ally on the issue in Pyongyang, however, with an editorial in the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper criticising Washington’s demands for Seoul to spend more money on US troops in the South.

Instead of the “anachronistic” deployment of strategic capabilities in the South, the newspaper said, the US should instead pay “compensation” for “occupying” the country and inflicting “numerous harms”.