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Trump’s demanding $1.2B yearly: source

Angry U.S. president may threaten to reduce forces in Korea next
Jan 01,2019
Washington has reportedly demanded that Seoul pay $1.2 billion annually for the cost of stationing U.S. troops in Korea upon the personal order of U.S. President Donald Trump, according to a diplomatic source Monday.

The Wall Street Journal initially reported on Dec. 7 that the Trump administration wants Korea to pay 150 percent of the current defense cost-sharing deal, or about $1.2 billion.

The diplomatic source said this amount was decided upon when Trump heard that Seoul was paying $600 million out of a total yearly cost of $3.5 billion - figures that are questionable on their own. Trump was said to have become infuriated and demanded that Seoul pay double the amount, which came to $1.2 billion.

Over the past year, Seoul and Washington have been negotiating to renew their bilateral Special Measures Agreement (SMA), a multiyear cost-sharing deal under the Status of Forces Agreement for the maintaining of the USFK, which expired Monday. Washington has been demanding Seoul pay significantly more and the two sides have failed to narrow their differences. It is not unusual for such negotiations over the SMA to run into the following year.

The issue is that the calculation of the cost for the stationing of the U.S. forces in Korea (USFK) - $3.5 billion - and the amount Seoul pays - $600 million - were off.

Under the current deal, Seoul pays around 960 billion won ($860 million) annually, or around half the cost of the stationing of some 28,500 U.S. troops in Korea.

The diplomatic source said, “It is unclear what the reasoning was, but President Trump said that Korea is a well-off nation and is using the USFK for very little money.”

The source continued, “He has repeated this Trump-style calculation many times, and also conveyed it to Seoul through diplomatic channels.”

The figure of $3.5 billion was also mentioned multiple times in Pulitzer-winning U.S. journalist Bob Woodward’s best-selling book, “Fear: Trump in the White House.”

In a meeting with cabinet members in July 2017, Trump was described as venting his anger at having to spend “$3.5 billion a year to have troops in South Korea” and that Seoul is not paying for the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system.

“Like $3.5 billion, 28,000 troops,” Trump was quoted as saying in the book. “I don’t know why they’re there. Let’s bring them all home!”

Woodward wrote that in a phone conversation with Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump “would not let go of the $18 billion trade deficit and the $3.5 billion expense of stationing 28,500 U.S. troops.”

“Depending on the calculation method, the cost of stationing U.S. troops in Korea varies drastically,” said Park Won-gon, an international affairs professor at Handong Global University. “The $3.5 billion appears to include the USFK’s wages, the cost of the stationing of their families and the cost of the deployment of strategic assets.”

The White House could also use a reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Korea, despite a U.S. defense authorization bill that limits the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers, as its next negotiation card.

The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed by Trump on Aug. 13 after it passed the House of Representatives and Senate, restricts him from unilaterally reducing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea below 22,000 military personnel.

It is listed under Section 1264 of the NDAA, “Limitation on use of funds to reduce the total number of members of the Armed Forces serving on active duty who are deployed to the Republic of Korea.”

However, experts point out that this act does not necessarily bar the reduction of U.S. troops.

Under Section 1264, the total number of troops on active duty deployed to South Korea cannot be dropped below this number unless the U.S. Defense Department “certifies” to congressional defense committees that such a reduction is in its “national security interest” and “will not significantly undermine the security of United States allies in the region.”

The U.S. defense secretary is also expected to have “appropriately consulted” with key allies involved, including South Korea and Japan, on any reduction of troops.

Park Hui-rak, a political science professor at Kookmin University, warned, “We seem to think here that the National Defense Authorization Act will prevent the U.S. withdrawal of troops in Korea, when, in fact, it is simply a bill authorizing a defense budget.”

Likewise, the act has a time limit since it is for the fiscal year 2019 - in other words, it runs until next September. It is unclear if next year’s NDAA will include a similar clause preventing the reduction of troops.

Furthermore, under the U.S. Constitution, the president is the commander in chief of the military.

A Washington source said that a House Armed Services Committee lawmaker recently relayed that since the president is commander in chief, “there is a possibility that the act violates the Constitution.”

The source continued, “Such discussions are coming up within the United States, so it is regrettable that the NDAA is being considered in Seoul as a fait accompli that can prevent the reduction of the USFK.”

Since his campaign days, Trump has insinuated that he could consider withdrawing U.S. troops from Korea, as well as drawing back the U.S. nuclear umbrella over the region if allies do not pay more for defense. Even recently, Trump has been emphasizing the message that the United States would not be “subsidizing” its allies, calling for countries to pay more for defense.

BY PARK YONG-HAN, LEE KEUN-PYUNG, CHUN SU-JIN and LEE YU-JEONG [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]