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[Editorial] Trump risk at large

Trump win biggest threat to South Korea as well as the world

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 16, 2024 - 05:31

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South Korea faces a plethora of risks this year, and among the most chilling is Donald Trump’s probable election as US president.

Given his history as US president from 2017-2021, the gist of his foreign policy is clear: America will cut its spending on collective defense with its allies, unless they significantly increase their share of the funding. This will likely include less military drills with South Korea and Japan.

During a campaign rally last Saturday, Trump complained about what he called "delinquent" payments by members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and recounted a past conversation with the head of "a big country" about a possible attack by Russia.

"I said: 'You didn't pay? You're delinquent?'" Trump told the crowd. "'No, I would not protect you, in fact I would encourage them (Russia) to do whatever they want. You gotta pay.'"

John Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security adviser from 2018 to 2019, said in a recent interview with Politico that Trump’s goal is “to lay the groundwork to get out” of NATO. At the NATO summit in 2018, Trump came very close to withdrawing from the Europe-based alliance, according to Bolton who said he was there when it was happening.

Keith Kellogg, a key national security adviser to Trump who had served as chief of staff of the former president's National Security Council, told Reuters that if a NATO member failed to spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, as agreed, he would support removing that nation’s Article 5 protections under the North Atlantic Treaty. Article 5 states that an attack against one member of NATO will be considered an attack against all, and members of the alliance must respond appropriately.

Trump has also threatened to pull American troops out of South Korea unless Seoul pays more in compensation. In a media interview in 2021, he said if returned to power, he would demand that Korea pay billions of dollars more each year to keep US troops.

During his presidency in 2019, Trump called for a fivefold increase of Korea’s contribution to bear the costs of US forces here to $5 billion, but after Biden took office, the two sides agreed in 2021 to raise it by 13.9 percent to 1.18 trillion won ($887 million). As it is clear as daylight that Trump will demand a steep hike if he gets reelected, South Korea and the US agreed last month to begin talks on their next deal of defense cost sharing this year, earlier than planned.

Latest polls show Trump is far ahead of his Republican rival Nikki Haley, while Biden sees no feasible competition for the Democratic nomination. Biden, at 81, suffers mounting concerns over his age and health, in addition to persisting economic woes after years of high inflation. US inflation slowed by less than expected, according to the latest inflation report released Tuesday.

Trump is only four years younger than his octogenarian adversary, but his other issues overshadow his age or mental health. A fifth of the respondents in a US national poll said they believe Taylor Swift is a government asset, after weeks of right-wing conspiracy theorists and Fox News claiming that Swift is part of a Pentagon psychological operation to help Biden.

Against such a backdrop, the defense ministries of South Korea and the US signed a document on Wednesday to speed up the full implementation of a nuclear coordination deal that the two countries previously inked to enhance Washington's extended deterrence against rising nuclear threats from Pyongyang. Under the latest deal, the two countries’ defense ministries, instead of the presidential office and the White House, will lead the Nuclear Consultative Group meetings.

Putting a stronger alliance on paper and having the deputy defense ministers run the NCG to make it harder for a new US president to alter it are necessary steps. But with North Korea shooting missiles of all kinds on a weekly basis and hacking into the private email of an official at the South's presidential office, Seoul must focus on reinforcing its own military and other intel. At least some of the hundreds of pundits here who watch and analyze the US and North Korea at both state-funded and private think tanks should get in touch with Trump's advisers to prepare against all possibilities.