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View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Following months of similar comments demanding South Korea contribute more money to the U.S.-ROK defense alliance on the peninsula, President Donald Trump on Wednesday went a step further, implying that the South should pay the entire cost.
Speaking at a political rally in Florida, Trump told the audience the U.S. pays for the defense of “one country – I won’t say the country – but one country we spend a lot of money on, defending, very dangerous territory.”
But he also told the crowd he had just directed officials to “call them, and ask for the rest of” the total cost spent on the U.S. presence there.
Trump described a conversation he had with a military general where he asked how much the U.S. spends to defend the country, to which the general supposedly answered “$5 billion dollars.”
“They pay us $500 million? I said we lose $4.5 billion to defend a country that’s rich as hell, and probably doesn’t like us too much. Can you believe it? And we’ve been defending it for many years,” he added.
Trump used the same figures to describe the South in February, saying in a cabinet meeting at the White House that “South Korea is costing us $5 billion a year. And they pay – they were paying about $500 million for $5 billion worth of protection.”
At the Wednesday rally, Trump described a phone conversation with the president of the country, assumed to be President Moon Jae-in, who reportedly said they could not pay more at the time “because it passed our so-called parliament, and so we can’t.”
“So I said make it 750 [million dollars] – now that’s a long way short of $4.5 billion that we’re losing, but I said make it 750,” Trump recounted, adding that the two leaders had “agreed to a number around $500 million.”
The President’s figures, however, are incorrect: Seoul and Washington in March agreed the South would pay 1.04 trillion KRW ($915 million), an 8.2% increase over the previous year.
The number also represents “roughly half the total cost” of joint defense operations with the U.S. according to the New York Times – making the total roughly $2 billion, far less than Trump’s claimed $5 billion.
But while the U.S. President has repeatedly called for South Korea to increase its spending on the defense alliance in recent months despite the agreement in March, he appeared Wednesday to signal he had directed officials to now demand Seoul pay the entire cost.
“And now the two months is up, and I just told my people, call them, and ask for the rest of it, okay? And they’ll pay, they’ll pay,” Trump said at the Florida rally, referring to the “two months” after which the other leader supposedly said negotiations would again be possible.
One South Korean military specialist said the remarks would not go down well with Seoul.
“President Trump’s comments will not gain the respect of the Korean people,” said retired South Korean Lieutenant General Chun In-bum.
“No amount of money is enough to show our support to the alliance, especially to the U.S. troops serving in Korea,” he continued.
“But his comments are not appreciated. Additionally, 80 percent of the Korean people support the alliance.”
When describing his direction to his “people,” it is possible Trump was referring to U.S. officials currently in Seoul for talks on the defense alliance as well as the DPRK.
Special Representative for North Korea with the State Department Stephen Biegun arrived in South Korea on Wednesday and met with his counterpart Lee Do-hoon Thursday morning.
He is set to meet the South’s unification minister Kim Yeon-chul on Friday to discuss inter-Korean issues.
Also in Seoul on Thursday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver is expected to discuss “assessments of regional security circumstances and trilateral military exchanges and cooperation” with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, Yonhap reported citing the ROK Ministry of National Defense.
Negotiations over cost-sharing are typically conducted between the two countries’ foreign ministries.
The South Korean foreign ministry said in a statement following the March signing that while the “two sides agreed on effective duration at one year, the ROK and the U.S. made it possible to extend the Agreement” if a new deal is not reached before the current agreement’s expiration.
The U.S. embassy in Seoul declined to provide a comment Thursday when asked if any such direction from President Trump had in fact been received.
Earlier this year, North Korea condemned Washington for their demands Seoul contribute more to the cost-sharing agreement, saying it demonstrated their “real intention to consider South Korea not as ‘ally’ but as a means to satisfy its greed.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: White House