Northeast Asia-focused experts and the South Korean media reacted derisively to Donald Trump’s Saturday interview with the New York Times (NYT), in which he suggested the potential withdrawal of U.S. military forces in Seoul and Tokyo and their possible nuclear acquisition.
Trump, the headline-making front-runner for the Republican nomination has called for South Korea and Japan to pick up more of the tab for their defense. If not, he said the U.S. should reconsider its strategy.
“We will not be ripped off anymore,” he told the NYT.
South Korean media, regardless of their ideological slant, reacted critically on Sunday and Monday, indicating concerns over Trump’s remarks.
The progressive Hankyoreh criticized Trump’s ideas “America First,” and said they ignored the U.S. forces’ constructive role not only for South Korea’s regional security but also Washington’s. It urged the Seoul administration to clearly oppose to Trump’s diplomatic policy.
The center-right JoongAng Ilbo also called for the South Korean government to deliver a similar message to U.S. policymakers, and expressed concerns about Japan’s military ambitions should nuclear proliferation be allowed.
The conservative DongA Ilbo said
Observers commonly said there is little chance of Trump being elected but nonetheless criticized his “reckless” remarks, as they could lead to a nuclear arms race in East Asia.
“A collapse of the East Asian security architecture without a credible and stable alternative, nuclear proliferation and a worsening arms race in East Asia do not serve U.S. security interests let alone the world’s,” Daniel Pinkston, lecturer at Troy University told NK News.
Support for nuclear arms has been growing in among conservatives in Seoul, and even among some liberal experts, as a measure to counter Pyongyang’s increasing military capacity.
Cheong Seong-chang, senior researcher at the Sejong Institute who is among the most vocal proponents of Seoul’s nuclear possession, has said an increase in defense costs would harm the South Korean economy, which has already been slowing.
Robert Kelly, international relations professor at Pusan National University did say that Trump’s remarks reflected U.S. recognition of the cost of defending its allies.
“There’s no easy transparent accounting on who pays for what,” Kelly told NK News.
THAAD affected this sentiment, Kelly added. “Koreans said they don’t want to pay for THAAD, but Koreans have more benefit than Americans. It is Korean defense.”
“Seoul could spend more on defense and South Korea has the ability to spend more.” Pinkston continued.
According to a U.S. State Department’s report, South Korea’s defense costs account for 2.5 percent of GDP, or $25.6 billion, the 11th-largest amount in the world.
One South Korean former government official speculated that South Korea shares about 40 percent of the joint defense costs.
“It is worth considering increasing the percentage, but 2.5 percent of GDP for defense expenditure is not low,” Cha Du-hyeogn, the former secretary to President Lee Myung-bak for crisis information told NK News. China spent 2.1 percent of GDP from 2002 to 2012.
Cha continued that THAAD is for U.S. Forces Korea, criticizing Seoul’s politicians who brought up Seoul’s need to deploy it urgently.
Van Jackson, associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, on the other hand, suggested the strategic importance of the alliance between Seoul and Washington, and said maintaining the international order through the alliance was in U.S. interests.
“Do we both need to maintain this alliance for security reasons? If that’s the case, then the question of specific burden-sharing responsibilities is at best a secondary concern,” Jackson told NK News.
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Featured Image: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore on 2011-02-10 12:47:59