According to a report on July 30 from a South Korean newspaper, Washington has requested that the government in Seoul pay $5 billion next year for the continued presence of its armed forces on South Korean soil. This would be more than a fivefold increase from 2019, when Seoul paid $879 million.
During my recent visit to Seoul, numerous high-ranking South Korean officials and academics actually laughed at this request, amused by the absurdity of such a high number.
However, it should not be laughed at. The unreasonableness of $5 billion is the entire point: the Trump administration understands that Seoul will not pay, especially after it funded the $10.7 billion upgrade of the U.S. garrison, Camp Humphreys. Washington wants to use it as leverage to curb and eventually pull U.S. troops out of South Korea.
This would not only be a massive boon for North Korea, China and Russia -- all South Korea's rivals -- but would also signal to U.S. allies around the world that its military presence abroad is based on tit-for-tat economic exchange, not mutual security.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump tried to frame the request positively. He tweeted he was asking South Korea for a greater financial contribution: "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. The relationship between the two countries is a very good one!"
But the desire to remove U.S. troops is not a new one for Trump. Since the 1990s, he has repeatedly said that he thinks U.S. allies freeload and take advantage of America.
He has specifically mentioned South Korea as a prime example of a rich allied nation that "rips off" the U.S. For example, in a 1990 interview with Playboy magazine, Trump said, "I think our country needs more ego, because it is being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies, i.e. Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea etc."
In a 2013 interview with Fox News, Trump reiterated that South Korea takes advantage of the U.S. He said: "We send all those aircraft carriers over. All those ships, the planes, the bombers. And we get nothing out of it."
Trump believes that the U.S. military presence in South Korea is a lose-lose situation since -- to his mind -- South Korea then takes advantage of the U.S. in trade.
Although Trump can be wildly inconsistent, his belief that South Korea is a freeloader has been remarkably consistent. This conviction will certainly not change if he emerges victorious from the 2020 U.S. presidential election, which I believe he will.
Trump's odd friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un also factors into this $5 billion request. His rapprochement with the North Korean leadership has been a centerpiece of his foreign policy. He cannot afford to lose favor with Pyongyang and needs to reward Kim's patience for not testing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, Pyongyang has routinely called for the U.S. to withdraw its troops from South Korea. This has been a long-standing goal of the North Korean leadership, which views United States Forces Korea, or USFK, as a national security threat.
Trump and Kim's mutual distaste for the U.S. military presence in South Korea could thus result in a peculiar situation in which their political agendas overlap. It becomes a win-win position for Trump.
What should South Korea do? It should call Washington's bluff and pay the $5 billion.
It cannot afford not to. Currently, South Korea is in a volatile geostrategic environment. With heightened tensions with Japan and the recent violation of Korean airspace by Russian planes, Seoul is in no place to negotiate.
Combined with the innovation of the Korean people and investment from the state, the continued U.S. military presence has helped the peninsula remain in a relative state of peace and thus contributed to the remarkable economic prosperity of South Korea.
If USFK leaves South Korea, North Korea may feel emboldened to launch an attack on South Korean territory. China and Russia will exert pressure on Seoul and pull the smaller nation into its economic orbit. South Korea needs USFK more than ever.
Some may feel that Seoul paying the $5 billion request would be playing into Trump's strategy. That is not true. As Trump explains in his 1987 book "Art of the Deal," "My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I'm after." In other words, Trump knows that his first offer will often not be the eventual outcome.
However, by calling his bluff, South Korea will not only secure the continued presence of USFK but limit external pressure from its adversarial neighbors. Trump is a renegade but by understanding his tactics, South Korea can remain one step ahead of him.
Unfortunately, I do not believe they will do that. Opposition to a U.S. military presence in Korea is deeply ingrained in the political thought of the left, which tends to be ultranationalist, particularly since the democratization movement of the 1980s.
Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to President Moon Jae-in for foreign affairs and national security, said in a 2018 interview with The Atlantic: "For me, the best thing is to really get rid of [the] alliance." The adviser's wish may soon come true if Trump wins reelection in 2020.
Benjamin R. Young is assistant professor of cyber leadership and intelligence at Dakota State University.