Trump win likely to pose enormous defense costs, diplomatic challenges to Korea

Bomi Yoon

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump arrives to speak after meeting with members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters at their headquarters in Washington, Wednesday. AP-Yonhap

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump arrives to speak after meeting with members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters at their headquarters in Washington, Wednesday. AP-Yonhap

Experts call for Seoul to secure ‘diplomatic buffer zone’ ahead of possible scenarios this year

Editor’s note

This article is the last of a four-part series that provides an analysis of South Korea’s diplomatic situation with neighboring countries at the start of 2024. ― ED.

By Nam Hyun-woo

With Donald Trump cruising to a rematch with United States President Joe Biden in the presidential election in November, the world, including South Korea, is preparing for a possible second Trump presidency, which is anticipated to force many countries to recalibrate their diplomatic strategies.

Throughout last year, the Yoon Suk Yeol administration has concentrated on strengthening its alliance with the U.S. to an unprecedented level, aligning South Korea’s diplomatic stance with its traditional ally on most issues, including sensitive ones such as the war between Ukraine and Russia.

Experts said, however, that South Korea this year will have to focus on securing a “diplomatic buffer zone” to prepare for a possible second Trump presidency, which is expected to force Seoul to shoulder a greater amount of the cost of maintaining U.S. Forces Korea’s (USFK) presence on the peninsula and make greater efforts for containing China. The speculation that Trump may condone North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is also a concern for Seoul, which has been striving to stymie Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions through U.S. extended deterrence.

“In terms of the relations with the U.S., the top agenda item that South Korea should focus on this year would be creating a diplomatic buffer zone for requests that Washington may make under a possible second Trump presidency in 2025,” said Lee Geun, professor of international politics at Seoul National University’s (SNU) Graduate School of International Studies.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday, Biden’s job approval ratings declined to 38 percent, down from 40 percent in December. In a separate Reuters-Ipsos poll, released on Jan. 25, showed Trump as having a 6 percentage-point lead over Biden, while a Bloomberg poll showed Thursday that Biden is losing ground to Trump in seven swing states.

Polls and new developments in U.S. politics are prompting countries to consider various scenarios in case of a second Trump presidency, and its impact on their respective national interests.

Jeong Eun-bo, right in the front row, then South Korea's top negotiator for defense-cost sharing talks, and Rob Rapson, left in the front row, then acting U.S. ambassador to Seoul, sign the Special Measures Agreement on Seoul's share of the cost for stationing the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea, at the foreign ministry in Seoul in this March 18, 2021 file photo. Joint Press Corps

Jeong Eun-bo, right in the front row, then South Korea’s top negotiator for defense-cost sharing talks, and Rob Rapson, left in the front row, then acting U.S. ambassador to Seoul, sign the Special Measures Agreement on Seoul’s share of the cost for stationing the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea, at the foreign ministry in Seoul in this March 18, 2021 file photo. Joint Press Corps

For South Korea, one of the most urgent agenda items is the Trump administration’s possible demand for hikes in Seoul’s share of the upkeep of USFK.

The current 11th Special Measures Agreement (SMA) is set to expire at the end of 2025, but the two signatory parties reportedly reached an understanding to launch negotiations for the 12th SMA within this year, due to concerns that the negotiation could become a source of friction if Trump gets reelected.

In 2019, then-President Trump demanded a hefty rise in South Korea’s contribution to the costs of USFK, calling for a five-fold increase to $5 billion. This created tensions between Seoul and Washington, but this was quickly addressed under the Biden presidency as the two countries agreed to increase South Korea’s contribution by a more modest 13.9 percent to 1.18 trillion won ($887 million) in 2021.

“I’m 100 percent sure that Trump will demand a significant hike in Seoul’s contribution in his second presidency, as he believes that many U.S. allies are enjoying a free ride on the U.S. military forces,” Lee said.

“Given that South Korean politicians these days are mentioning projects worth trillions of won during their election campaigns, the amount that the U.S. will demand will not likely be a conundrum. The problem will be South Korea’s public sentiment, given the nation has negative views on this issue.”

Lee Seong-hyon, a senior fellow at George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations, also noted that the second Trump administration will likely demand a hike in South Korea’s contribution, and Seoul’s public sentiment will be the key point in this issue.

“With North Korea escalating tensions through its threatening rhetoric, missiles and nuclear weapons, could South Korea reject a demand from Trump?” he said.

“Let’s say Trump will again demand a five-fold increase. And if South Korea agrees, the question is how the Yoon administration will persuade the public … Simply put, there can be a question: ‘If we increase our contribution by five times, will the U.S. provide five-times-better protection ?’”

Senior fellow Lee also cast worries that “the business-like” approach to the alliance may also result in changing its nature from what both Seoul and Washington call “a value-based alliance for free democracy” to a purely financial transaction.

 

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photo ahead of their bilateral meeting during the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. Reuters-Yonhap

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photo ahead of their bilateral meeting during the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. Reuters-Yonhap

Push to contain China

The experts also believe that the U.S. already expects South Korea to play a greater role in containing China in economic and geopolitical realms. This expectation is likely to grow under a second Trump presidency.

On Jan. 28, Trump wrote on Truth Social regarding the automobile industry: “I want them to be made in the USA, every type of car, and would require China, and other countries, through TARIFFS, or otherwise, to build plants here, with our workers.” He took a negative view of Biden endorsee Shawn Fain, the President of the United Auto Workers, calling him a “stiff” who is selling the automobile industry “right into the big, powerful hands of China.”

Trump is already laying the groundwork for setting more extreme trade barriers to block China, and this will naturally bring consequences to South Korea, as China is its largest trading partner.

“Given that the Biden administration somehow inherited Trump’s China policies, the U.S. pressure on China under a second Trump administration will likely be even greater than that of Biden,” SNU’s Lee said. “In terms of technologies and supply chain, the U.S. pressure on South Korea in terms of economic relations with China will likely grow.”

In a Jan. 30 report, the Korea International Trade Association thinks that a second Trump presidency will hasten the economic decoupling occurring between the U.S. and China, as Washington is poised to employ universal tariffs and other measures in a protectionist move.

The association expects that South Korea may be included in countries facing the universal tariff, because the Trump camp has pointed to cars and car components from South Korea, Japan, Mexico, Europe and Canada as reasons for the U.S. trade deficit.

“Coupled with the U.S.-China rivalry, concerns over regulations on Chinese plants owned by South Korean chipmakers, technology transfer, sales and other economic cost increases can be realized,” senior fellow Lee said.

“Trump will choose the direction and methods to contain China and use U.S. allies, including South Korea, for that. In that sense, it is quite obvious that the U.S. pressure on South Korean companies, regulative actions urging South Korea’s participation in halting China and other economic burdens will grow.”

 Demonstrators gather near the parliament building to protest against the candidacy of Han Kuo-yu from Taiwan's largest opposition party the Kuomintang, in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday. Reuters-Yonhap

Demonstrators gather near the parliament building to protest against the candidacy of Han Kuo-yu from Taiwan’s largest opposition party the Kuomintang, in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday. Reuters-Yonhap

Such a stance is anticipated in not only economic but also geopolitical issues, such as increasing tensions over Taiwan after its recent presidential election. Referring to the partnership between China and Russia, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, Wednesday: “Ukraine today. Taiwan could be tomorrow.”

Last year, South Korea made a bold diplomatic step by expressing its condemnation of Russia and support for Ukraine, breaking from its conventional tactics of keeping a cautious stance on international issues to which Korea is not directly related. It was seen as Seoul’s response to Washington’s indirect pressure to have its allies join its global campaigns.

“Like with the Ukraine war, the U.S. will ask more for South Korea to step up more on global geopolitical issues, including on the issue of Taiwan,” senior fellow Lee said.

“South Koreans usually think the South Korea-U.S. alliance is about protecting the Korean Peninsula, but the treaty states the two countries’ commitment to security and defense cooperation in the Pacific. So the U.S. will increasingly ask what will be South Korea’s contribution to this … Against this backdrop, what’s wise for South Korea to do is to explain its range of actions related to Taiwan and its reasons to the U.S. in a preemptive manner.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, and then-U.S. President Donald Trump move to shake hands at the border village of Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas in this June 30, 2019, file photo.  AP-Yonhap

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, and then-U.S. President Donald Trump move to shake hands at the border village of Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas in this June 30, 2019, file photo. AP-Yonhap

Resetting NK policy, Washington Declaration in peril

As anticipation builds regarding Trump potentially securing a second term, reports and speculations on his North Korea policies are painting a worrisome four-year period ahead for South Korea.

One of those concerns can be understood courtesy of a Politico report in December, which explained how Trump was considering a plan where he might be interested in negotiating an arms control agreement with the North that would allow it to keep some of its nuclear weapons.

In that scenario, concerns would naturally grow rapidly in South Korea that Trump may use the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) between the allies as a bargaining chip for the North to reduce its arms. The NCG was established under the Washington Declaration, which was adopted by Yoon and Biden in April last year to strengthen U.S. extended deterrence, and help South Korea to have greater visibility of U.S. strategic asset deployments around the Korean Peninsula.

“The worst case scenario is Trump making a deal with the North on allowing the regime to have nuclear, short- or medium-range missiles, while prohibiting long-range ones,” SNU’s Lee said. “Trump will not hesitate to meet Kim Jong-un. He wants to show that he can control Kim and he can prevent North Korea’s nuclear weapons or missiles from threatening the U.S … In that case, the NCG and the U.S. extended deterrence can be very vulnerable during a four-year Trump presidency.”

 President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden  raise hands together at an official state dinner during Yoon's visit to the White House in Washington, April 26, 2023. Reuters-Yonhap

President Yoon Suk Yeol and U.S. President Joe Biden raise hands together at an official state dinner during Yoon’s visit to the White House in Washington, April 26, 2023. Reuters-Yonhap

Senior fellow Lee also stressed that the Washington Declaration is a non-binding political declaration that can be scrapped anytime.

“It is unclear whether Trump will uphold Biden’s promise for the extended deterrence, but at least there will be no technical difficulties for the U.S. to abandon the declaration,” Lee said. “If the U.S. official who is in charge of this issue is a political appointee, not a career bureaucrat, Washington may find it easier to break the declaration.”

The senior fellow said that it is very difficult to predict Trump’s North Korea policies, but chances are slim for the former president to push for a grand bargain with Pyongyang — as he sought to do so in 2018 and 2019 — because he also has prior experience concerning Kim’s unpredictability. Rather, Trump may seek to engage with other superpower leaders, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping, so that he can attain a tangible result and a boost in his domestic political approval ratings.

“In the past, Trump only starred in a show featuring North Korea,” Lee said. “Now, there are plenty of other channels with programs he can appear on. North Korea is not the only soap opera that Trump can appear in.”

A U.S. B-52H 'Stratofortress' strategic bomber is parked at an air base in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, Oct. 19, 2023, intended as a  show of force of the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. against North Korea's threats. Courtesy of Ministry of National Defense

A U.S. B-52H “Stratofortress” strategic bomber is parked at an air base in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, Oct. 19, 2023, intended as a show of force of the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. against North Korea’s threats. Courtesy of Ministry of National Defense

The experts echoed that chances are very high for Trump to push ahead with whatever agenda he sets within the next four years, without considering any possible aftermath, because this would be his second term.

“Though we have been describing uncertainty under a second Trump administration, his roadmap for the next four years is quite visible — turning the situation advantageously for the U.S. through tougher trade measures, making U.S. allies shoulder more defense costs and controlling the diplomatic situation through his personal engagement with authoritarian leaders,” SNU’s Lee said.

“The question is how hard he will push ahead with those agenda items. The Yoon administration has to use this year to set up strategies based on how much Seoul is willing to accept regarding Trump’s requests.”

Senior fellow Lee also noted that many countries have already begun working on preparing scenarios for a second Trump presidency, and South Korea should engage with U.S. politicians and authorities who are likely to be relevant under a new Trump administration.

“U.S. relations and other diplomatic issues are expected to come as a tough challenge for the geopolitics surrounding the Korean Peninsula this year,” he said. “South Korea has to buckle up its diplomatic capabilities to brace for impact.”

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