Is South Korea really a ‘free rider’ or ‘major abuser’ in alliance with U.S.?

South Korean and U.S. officials hold negotiations over the sharing of the cost for stationing the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea in Seoul on Nov. 18, 2019, in this photo provided by Seoul's foreign ministry. (Yonhap)

South Korean and U.S. officials hold negotiations over the sharing of the cost for stationing the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea in Seoul on Nov. 18, 2019, in this photo provided by Seoul’s foreign ministry. (Yonhap)

By Song Sang-ho

Seoul: U.S. President Donald Trump described South Korea as a “free rider” on the American security alliance network during his bombastic election campaign, with a recent memoir revealing that he even called the Asian ally a “major abuser.”

Then came the nagging question of whether Seoul does not contribute to the decades-old bilateral alliance — a key deterrent against North Korea’s military threats, a regional stabilizer and not least a bulwark against communist expansion during the Cold War.

South Koreans have recently started to ponder an answer to that question, as the U.S. has been heaping pressure on Seoul to increase its financial contributions for the stationing of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) during bilateral defense cost-sharing negotiations.

“Under the alliance commitment and in support for its ally, the U.S., South Korea participated in the Vietnam War and the conflict in Iraq, and has promoted shared values and principles such as democracy and a market economy in tandem with the U.S.,” Park Won-gon, professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said.

“Also under the collective defense system, Seoul has also contributed to countering the North Korean threats that are a security challenge not only for South Korea but for the region and by extension for the international community,” he added.

During the Vietnam War, South Korea put itself at the forefront of the Cold War conflict as it acceded to a U.S. request. It sent some 320,000 troops to battle zones. Of them, more than 5,000 were killed in action.

Also during the Cold War, South Korea offered storage or operational places for a large number of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, which some experts say made the Asian ally virtually a shield for the U.S. despite the possibility of being caught in a Soviet-U.S. nuclear exchange.

“To help fend off communist expansion, South Korean troops put their lives on the line during the Vietnam War. Their sacrifices may still be deeply lodged in the minds of American fellows,” Nam Chang-hee, professor of political science at Inha University, said.

Despite initial reservations on the deployment of troops to support America’s war on terrorism in the early 2000s, South Korea also made a politically risky decision to send thousands of soldiers to the dangerous war zones in Iraq.

The contributions to the alliance came also in the form of heavy financial payments.

For the construction of Camp Humphreys, a sprawling U.S. military complex in Pyeongtaek, about 70 kilometers south of Seoul, South Korea shouldered more than 90 percent of the construction costs in a show of its enduring commitment to the partnership with the U.S.

That contribution was duly recognized when the USFK headquarters moved to Pyeongtaek from Yongsan in central Seoul last year.

“This headquarters building within the complex represents a significant investment in the long-term presence of the U.S. forces in Korea,” then-USFK Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks said during the opening ceremony of the new USFK headquarters in Pyeongtaek in June last year.

“The Republic of Korea’s investment was over 90 percent of the cost, and for that 90 percent, the U.S. remains with you 100 percent,” he added.

Geostrategy experts have viewed Camp Humphreys, the largest U.S. overseas military compound in Asia, as a pivotal strategic installation for the U.S. military, given that it is situated right below China, an increasingly assertive rival for America.

In particular, Camp Humphreys has the potential to undercut China’s ability to project its power farther into the Pacific and its evolving strategy to keep American forces at bay based on its new weapons systems with greater operational ranges, lethality and accuracy.

American experts have said that China has been seeking to develop the so-called anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) capabilities that will allow it to prevent U.S. troops from approaching its coasts or deny them any freedom of maneuver in the event of armed conflicts.

“What China may want the most is to block access by American forces to its region, and the biggest challenge to China’s execution of the A2AD operations may be the USFK, which is already within the region,” Nam of Inha University said.

“The concern is that paying insufficient attention to the potential strategic value of the alliance keeping China in check could lead to an outcome of benefiting China’s A2AD strategy … American technocrats may know this well,” he added.

Little progress has been made in the allies’ negotiations over the sharing of the cost for the USFK under the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), the cost-sharing deal, as Washington has called for a more than five-fold increase from Seoul’s payments this year, which are worth US$870 million.

The U.S. has stressed that South Korea is a “wealthy” country that “could and should pay more.”

“It is not fair to ask our taxpayers to pay a disproportionate share of the cost of defending other countries or allies,” U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris said in an exclusive interview with Yonhap News Agency.

“So we are asking for a fair, equitable treatment to help us defray the costs of defending you in this case. Korea is not alone,” he added.

Experts, however, point out that beyond its fixed pecuniary contributions under the SMA, South Korea has already provided sizable support in other indirect forms, including the provision of land for American installations here.

Indirect support also includes South Korea’s provision of more than 3,000 Army soldiers under the Korean Augmentation Troops to the U.S. Army (KATUSA) program, and exemptions or reductions in utility fees and costs for the U.S. military using ports, airports, roads and railways.

Above all, South Korea can also give the U.S. a sense of comfort as an alliance partner for future security cooperation, particularly in times of armed conflict, given that its military has around 599,000 troops with advanced equipment that remain ready for deployments should there be consent from the public and parliament.

In the case of Japan, another key Asian ally for the U.S., its self-defense forces are still within the confines of the war-renouncing pacifist constitution, though Tokyo has been pushing its limits for a greater overseas security role, military experts here noted.


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