Doing the math on the USFK
The author is head of the international, diplomatic and security news team of the JoongAng Ilbo.
U.S. President Donald Trump is undoubtedly a great negotiator. But he particularly puts a low price tag on the U.S. Forces in South Korea (USFK). After the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore last year, he said he would have to bring the USFK back home given how much the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises cost. While it may have been an effective tactic to pressure South Korea to raise its share of defense costs, he practically exposed the biggest card for pressuring North Korea and China for denuclearization.
Let’s do the math, as Americans say, on the USFK. President Trump likes to mention the word “beautiful.” The USFK are indeed “beautiful” to the United States.
Last week, Trump said, “They agreed to pay, yesterday $500 million more toward their defense. $500 million, with a couple of phone calls.” But there is a more beautiful number to show Trump than the $500 million. The United States can say that South Korea spent nearly $8 billion through a few negotiations. Of course, Trump wouldn’t want to say it as that amount of money was saved by the Obama administration.
But that is true. The Korean government spent $7.9 billion on building Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek — the biggest and most advanced U.S. overseas base. Where will the 28,000 troops stay and train if they leave this beautiful base and other ones in South Korea and move back to the United States?
Edwin Feulner, chairman of the Asia Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation, told the JoongAng Ilbo, “Imagine moving the USFK to Kentucky, for example. It will be costly.” Imagine building a beautiful base like Camp Humphreys anywhere else in the world. It would be hard to secure a site, not to mention pay for it. Today, [the United States] is the only country with the capacity and experience of sending ground troops to another country and toppling a regime. The United States went into Afghanistan and Iraq and accomplished regime change.
Unlike the economic and diplomatic cards, though, the military card is “irreversible,” as it cannot be reversed. The U.S. sanctions against North Korea are reversible, as they can be eased temporarily and then tightened later.
Yet once the USFK leaves, that’s the end of it. Once the USFK leaves the Pyeongtaek base, the site will no longer be available, as apartments and commercial buildings will be built there. If the United States wants to return, China will do everything to prevent it.
Another reason that makes the USFK so beautiful is China. The Trump administration is pressuring China in all aspects of economy and security. The Trump administration is using force to prevent China from dominating the South China Sea. Beijing is attempting to make the South China Sea its territorial water and has clashed with Japan over the East China Sea.
Yet no such attempt was made near the Korean Peninsula, all thanks to the presence of the ground, naval and air forces of the United States. China’s territorial ambition could even allow a U.S. aircraft carrier to enter the West Sea (the Yellow Sea). The existence of the USFK itself prevents China’s military expansion in East Asia.
Trump must not sell the USFK at a dirt cheap price. Once the USFK leaves and U.S. Forces in Japan take over the mission, its alliance with South Korea will vanish, the last measure pushing denuclearization will disappear and the check on China will be gone. Why not do the math?
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 20, Page 27