A few months ago, Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s leading presidential candidate, wrongfully accused South Korea of receiving protection from the U.S. military for free in his “#TrumpVlog,” which was uploaded to Youtube. In the video, Trump asked, “How long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment?”
Harvard junior Joseph Choe questioned Trump for his misstatement regarding the U.S. army presence in South Korea at last month’s No Labels Problem Solver Convention in New Hampshire. According to NBC News, Choe stated that he “just wanted to get the facts straight with Mr. Trump.”
“He specifically said [in the past] that the South Korean government pays ‘nothing,’ which is not true,” continued Choe in the NBC News’ interview. “South Korea pays $861 million, which is almost half the cost.”
However, Trump did not seem to know the facts on the issue that he spoke so provocatively about. He wrongfully described the $861 million payment as “peanuts” compared to the total cost. He also questioned the legitimacy of Choe’s question by rudely asking Choe if he was from South Korea. According to NBC News, Choe is “an American born to Korean immigrant parents educated in the U.S.” Choe stated that he values both Korea and America equally, and does not think “that being both a Korean and American is mutually exclusive.”
Contrary to what Trump believes, the military relationship between the U.S. and South Korea is symbiotic. South Korea is located east of China and south of North Korea and Russia. The U.S. first wanted a base in Asia to check on North Korea, Russia and China. The U.S. did not suddenly feel altruistic and send their troops to protect a random country in Asia. The history goes a little deeper than that.
The U.S. troops first entered South Korea in 1945, at the end of World War II, which also marked the end of the Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula. They first entered to drive out the Japanese army and to help restore the country after decades of colonization. Through this, the U.S. prevented a communist country from forming because the Soviet Union also entered the Korean peninsula at that time and could have instigated a communist government.
The U.S. fought in the Korean War (1950-1953), which is when the peninsula split into the North and South. The U.S. fought to help an ally that they needed in Asia to contend with communist China, the former communist Soviet Union (present-day Russia) and Japan.
According to The Diplomat, South Korea is paying $861 million for the U.S. army’s presence. Considering South Korea’s GDP—which is about $1410.38 billion USD—and the benefits that the U.S. also gains, South Korea is not taking advantage of the U.S. military presence. Therefore, the military relationship between the two countries should not be classified as “free-riding,” or as a benefit obtained at another’s expense or without the usual cost or effort.
Even today, with a base in South Korea, they can contend against and keep a balance in power with China, Russia and North Korea. As Yang Uk, a research fellow at Korea Security and Defense Forum, told The Diplomat: “the U.S. and South Korea have a common threat in North Korea.”
If North Korea were ever to invade its southern neighbor again, as it did back in 1950, the U.S. troops will help fight back to protect South Korea. However, if South Korea were to ever collapse or become a Communist country, it is a significant loss to the U.S., as well.
I was born and raised in America and my parents are Korean immigrants who were educated in the U.S. I respect both countries’ histories and values. I simply want the right credit to be given to the right country and do not want the two countries to diminish each other’s accomplishments and accuse each other of misstatements. This would dishonor the lives that were sacrificed to make the present-day U.S. and present-day South Korea.
While Trump’s claim can be passed off as one of his many insulting and provocative misstatements, this is a matter of foreign politics and alliances and, therefore, should be handled with more caution and accuracy. The truth is, both countries gain from the mutually cooperative alliance. South Korea pays nearly half the huge total cost, which is a lot, considering the country’s GDP. Korea is not free riding. Debates focused on this matter should be based on legitimate facts.