WASHINGTON, Nov. 10 (Korea Bizwire) – U.S. President-elect Donald Trump could try to complete the postponed transfer of the wartime operational control of South Korean forces from Washington to Seoul in an effort to reduce American security burdens, a top expert on Korea said Wednesday.
South Korea handed over control of its forces to the U.S. during the 1950-53 Korean War to defend against invading troops from North Korea. Peacetime control of its forces was returned in 1994, but the wartime control, known as OPCON, still rests with the U.S.
The two countries agreed in 2007 to transfer OPCON to Seoul by 2012. But the planned transfer was postponed twice amid growing threats from North Korea, first until 2015 and then indefinitely until the South becomes more capable of coping with the North’s threats.
“Trump’s guiding principle has been to put American interests first. In this regard, it is entirely plausible that a Trump presidency may seek to complete OPCON transfer and put these responsibilities in the hands of Koreans,” said Victor Cha, Korea chairman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Trump’s election cast uncertainly over the fate of the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea because the real-estate tycoon has expressed deeply negative views of U.S. security commitments overseas as well as a willingness to withdraw 28,500 American troops from the South unless Seoul pays more for the troops.
“The reality is that we have no idea what the impact will be on the alliance. The president-elect’s guiding principle has been to treat allies fairly but not allow them to unfairly take advantage of the United States,” Cha said.
Cha noted that how to share the cost of the American troop presence is a “substantive alliance issue” as Seoul and Washington are scheduled to begin negotiations to renew the existing cost-sharing deal, known as the Special Measures Agreement (SMA).
Under the agreement, the South pays about half the cost, or US$900 million. But Trump has repeatedly claimed during the campaign that Seoul should pay 100 percent or see the U.S. troops leave the country.
“The cost-sharing agreement will require renegotiation in 2017. Trump has said clearly during the campaign that allies need to pay their share. Expect the United States to drive a hard bargain on renegotiation,” Cha said.
U.S. security experts and officials, including new U.S. Forces Korea commander, Gen. Vincent Brooks, said it would cost more to keep those troops stationed in the U.S. than it does in Korea. They also agree that the troop presence is also in line with U.S. interests in a region marked by China’s rise.
Cha said the biggest question mark about Trump’s policy would be about North Korea.
“During the campaign, the president-elect has offered everything from a willingness to sit down with (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un to putting the problem entirely in China’s hands,” the expert said. “It is plausible that he could try to cut a grand bargain.”
In his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” Trump advocated a surgical strike against the North’s nuclear facility before it’s too late. In this year’s campaign, he said the North is China’s problem to fix, though he also expressed a willingness to hold nuclear negotiations with the North’s leader while eating hamburgers.
Trump has also called the North’s leader a “madman,” a “maniac” and a “total nut job,” but he’s also praised the young dictator, saying it is “amazing” for him to keep control of the country.
Cha said Trump could support a bilateral military intelligence sharing agreement between South Korea and Japan, considering his desire to see allies carry a larger burden. Seoul and Tokyo recently reopened talks to forge the General Security of Military Information Agreement.
On economic issues, Cha said that Trump could reevaluate the free trade agreement with South Korea as he’s repeatedly argued the pact hurts the American worker. Trump has denounced the deal, which has been in effect since 2012, as a “job-killing” deal and a “disaster.”
The expert also said that it’s pointless to talk about South Korea’s accession to the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement because Trump is determined to kill the deal that has been awaiting legislative approval.