No free lunch
The author is a Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
On Nov. 21, three floor leaders of the ruling and opposition parties met with Stephen Biegun, the U.S. nominee for deputy secretary of state, and Atul Keshap, deputy assistant secretary of state of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
They were told that Korea and other countries attained economic development while the United States used taxpayers’ money to protect world peace and democracy for decades, so Korea should pay the appropriate share of defense expenses in the new frame of the Korea-U.S. alliance.
During the meeting, the Democratic Party’s Lee In-young, the Liberty Korea Party’s Na Kyung-won and the Bareunmirae Party’s Oh Shin-hwan conveyed their messages.
These messages regarded U.S. President Donald Trump’s argument that Korea was a “rich country” and should pay more for the stationing cost of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). Trump’s aides seem to have coordinated to openly and repeatedly call Korea rich. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said so on Nov. 15 in Seoul and on Nov. 19 in Manila. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said it onboard the airplane while visiting Korea and Japan on Nov. 10. White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien called Korea rich and strong in Canada on Nov. 23.
If it is a strategy to pressure Korea in the ongoing talks on defense cost sharing, the United States has miscalculated. Rather than helping the talks, it actually upsets public sentiment. Just as the Korean economy takes a downturn, calling Korea rich makes the public angry.
There are forecasts that the economic growth rate, which had maintained a 3 percent level, could go down to a 1 percent level this year. The country that lives on exports is about to see a decrease in exports for 12 consecutive months. Consumer and investment psychology are frozen. Being rich is a sentimental and relative concept. Also, a country may be rich, but that doesn’t mean individuals are rich.
There’s no free lunch, and Koreans also know that. If Korea needs to pay more, it should be fairly calculated first. That’s the rule of the business world that President Trump likes. If he argues that Korea should pay $5 billion next year, which is five times more than this year, because Korea is rich, he can turn the pro-Americans into anti-Americans.
I suspect that he is promoting this outside the negotiations because he is lacking logic. According to the National Defense Authorization Act that the U.S. Congress is reviewing for the next year, the USFK budget is $44.6 billion. Demanding Korea to pay for the entire cost is excessive, and adding the cost not associated with the stationing won’t be easy.
If he wants to get more without breaking the alliance, it would be better to stop mentioning “Korea is rich,” at least outside the talk table.