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Trump's Decision on Kurds Rattles Some in South Korea

People standing on a rooftop in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border with Syria, watch as in the background smoke billows from fires caused by Turkish bombardment in Tal Abyad, Syria, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019.

Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria amid a Turkish onslaught is being watched closely in South Korea, where Trump has long hinted at a major military realignment.

Trump has been accused of abandoning the Kurds, who helped the United States fight against Islamic State, by removing 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria as Turkey carried out a long-planned offensive against Kurdish fighters.

Trump insists he is only trying to fulfill a campaign promise to remove U.S. troops from overseas entanglements, framing the Syria decision as a pushback against U.S. officials and pundits who support what he calls “endless wars.”

That kind of talk is especially relevant for South Korea, which has been in a technical state of war with North Korea since the 1950s and hosts over 28,000 U.S. troops.

Trump has criticized the U.S.-South Korea alliance for decades, but the relationship has grown more tense as Trump’s negotiators engage in talks aimed at getting Seoul to pay substantially more for the cost of the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

Though there are significant differences in the situations facing the Kurds and the South Koreans, some in Seoul fear Trump’s Syria decision could offer a preview of what he intends to eventually do in Korea.

"It certainly sends a message to South Korea regarding cost-sharing talks: past loyalty means nothing,” said Jeffrey Robertson, a professor who specializes in South Korean diplomacy at Seoul’s Yonsei University.

Unprecedented situation

An editorial last week in the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, drew an explicit link between Trump’s “betrayal” of the Kurds and his intentions toward South Korea.

“The Kurds mobilized 150,000 troops to fight against Islamic State for the U.S., and more than 10,000 of its soldiers died. The reward for its sacrifice was President Trump’s betrayal. The main reason for the betrayal was money,” the editorial read.

Trump, the editorial continued, also judges the U.S.-South Korea alliance based on money, noting the U.S. president has threatened on several occasions to withdraw U.S. troops from Korea.

If Trump's behavior emboldens North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, South Korea could face an “unprecedented” threat, the conservative paper warned.

Some of Trump’s conservative allies in Washington are making the same argument.

“By abandoning the Kurds we have sent the most dangerous signal possible – America is an unreliable ally and it’s just a matter of time before China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea act out in dangerous ways,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said in a tweet.

‘No need to worry’

Harry Harris, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, attempted to assuage those concerns in an interview published Monday.

Asked whether U.S. allies should be worried about Trump’s decision on the Kurds, Harris told South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper there is "no need to worry." The United States has a mutual defense agreement with countries such as South Korea, he noted, and the U.S.-South Korea alliance is "ironclad."

But Harris’ interview also appeared to confirm what many in Seoul fear: that Trump wants a five-fold increase in the amount South Korea pays for the cost of U.S. troops.

Harris told the paper that from the perspective of the United States, South Korea could be seen as having funded only one-fifth of the total defense cost, and that as the world’s 12th largest economy South Korean should take on a larger share.

South Korean media have for months suggested Trump is demanding Seoul increase its share by five times, but U.S. officials until now have not confirmed that figure.

South Korean officials have reportedly rejected the demand, saying they are prepared to engage in “reasonable” negotiations before the current cost-sharing agreement expires at the end of the year.

Alliance strained

The United States and South Korea faced the same situation last year. They eventually agreed to a one-year cost-sharing deal in which South Korea agreed to pay eight percent more than the previous year.

In August, Trump appeared to preempt this year’s negotiations when he tweeted South Korea had agreed to pay “substantially more money” for the cost of the U.S. military presence. Seoul shot back, saying cost-sharing talks hadn’t even yet begun.

Trump has also complained about U.S.-South Korea military exercises, recently calling the drills a “total waste of money.” At a May rally in Florida, Trump said that a certain country was "rich as hell and probably doesn't like us too much." The comments were widely seen as referring to South Korea.

FILE - Amphibious assault vehicles of the South Korean Marine Corps travel during a military exercise as a part of the annual joint military training called Foal Eagle between South Korea and the U.S. in Pohang, South Korea, April 5, 2018.
FILE - Amphibious assault vehicles of the South Korean Marine Corps travel during a military exercise as a part of the annual joint military training called Foal Eagle between South Korea and the U.S. in Pohang, South Korea, April 5, 2018.

Fallout contained

Those types of comments have led to a small but notable anti-Trump backlash in South Korea, especially among conservatives who are already skeptical of Trump’s outreach to North Korea.

But if it's up to Seoul, the damage to the alliance may be limited, as both sides of the South Korean political spectrum support a continued U.S. military presence.

According to a January 2019 poll by the Asan Institute, a Seoul-based research organization, 83 percent of South Korean conservatives, 56 percent of progressives, and 68 percent of moderates support a U.S. military presence in Korea in the future.

The numbers are similar in the United States. Sixty-nine percent of Americans say the level of U.S. military forces in South Korea should be maintained or increased, according to a poll last month by the U.S.-based Chicago Council.

Situations different

There are other reasons to question whether Trump will treat South Korea the same as he did the Kurds, said Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at South Korea’s Handong Global University.

“South Korea is a nation-state and the Kurds are not,” Park said. “The alliance between countries cannot be the same as the alliance between a country and an ethnic group.”

And while U.S. troops stationed in South Korea are officially meant to counter North Korea, they also serve as an effective counterweight against China, as Park noted, presumably making them more difficult to remove.

Other differences

The United States has had tens of thousands of troops in South Korea for decades; the U.S. has just a tiny fraction of that amount in Syria, and only for a few years.

Trump has also for decades railed against U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, and repeatedly promised during his presidential campaign to withdraw troops from the region.

But although Trump’s criticism of South Korea is lesser known, it also stretches back for years. In a 1990 interview with Playboy magazine, Trump mentioned South Korea in a list of “so-called allies” that are “ripping off” the United States.

Trump has said he has not discussed removing U.S. troops from Korea during his talks with Kim.

But if he doesn’t decide to withdraw troops, he could still make other controversial moves related to U.S. military posture, such as a further reduction of U.S.-South Korea military exercises or the removal of other strategic assets.

“We have fully experienced that kind of unilateral decision making” in South Korea, Park said. “And his impromptu decisions have already caused some setbacks.”