While the media's focus in Seoul at the weekend was on the historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Sunday, the focus of Trump's remarks in Seoul during his two-day visit was instead on economy and trade.
The defense cost-sharing between South Korea and the U.S. was not an exception.
Delivering a speech to the heads of a number of South Korean conglomerates at the Grand Hyatt Seoul Sunday morning, he said South Korea is agreeing to "reimburse" the U.S. for some of the costs it has incurred for stationing "42,000" United States Forces Korea (USFK), again using the word reimburse and the number 42,000 which earlier brought criticism for being biased.
Experts in Seoul said Trump was targeting U.S. voters ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election to gain support with his "America First" policy, but such expressions show a lack of understanding of the meaning of defense cost sharing as an important pillar of the ROK-U.S. alliance, which should be reciprocal.
Seoul's contribution for the USFK costs are not about reimbursing the U.S. but about sharing the burden as allies, said Cha Du-hyeogn, visiting research fellow at Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Cha said the number 42,000 of the USFK troops might come when counting those supporting the USFK outside the Korean Peninsula, but such a number has never existed on the peninsula at the same time.
"Without considering if Trump's demand is right or wrong, Trump's remarks are for domestic politics," Cha added.
Professor Choi Yoon-cheol of Sangmyung University's Department of National Defense also says Trump was trying to appeal to supporters in his homeland by focusing on his economic achievements, as it was the main goal of his trip to Japan for the G20 and summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and to South Korea for a summit with President Moon Jae-in.
But Trump has not mentioned the benefits the U.S. has been taking by stationing the USFK such as leverage in its China policy and North Korea policy, Choi said.
"The essence of an alliance is to be reciprocal, which is to be win-win," he said. "The Korean Peninsula is at the very top of the U.S. blockade policy toward China while North Korea is being a substantive threat which has nuclear capabilities that could reach the U.S. territory. South Korea in this way has a significant strategic meaning to the U.S. by offering it a space for the U.S. to implement its China and North Korea policy."
Choi also said it is likely that Trump has asked Seoul's defense ministry to buy more U.S. weapons like F-35 stealth fighter jets.
Trump mentioned F-35 stealth jets during the meeting with the South Korean business leaders.
Trump's remarks regarding the defense cost sharing during his two-day visit to Seoul came after Joy Yamamoto, director of the U.S. State Department's office of Korean affairs commented on June 25 that Trump wants U.S. allies including South Korea to pay "a fair share, a greater share of the cost of protecting themselves."