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Trump’s False Claim About Defense ‘Deal’ with South Korea

Former President Donald Trump, who has regularly complained about the amount of money South Korea pays the U.S. to maintain American military bases there, falsely claimed this week that he “had a deal [with South Korea] for full payment to us, $Billions, and Biden gave it away.”

When he was president, Trump sought billions of dollars more from South Korea, but negotiations stalled in 2020 and an agreement was never reached. Soon after being elected, President Joe Biden inked a new five-year deal in which South Korea agreed to increase its cost-sharing payment by 13.9% in 2021.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, bumps elbows with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong after an initialing ceremony for the Special Measures Agreement in Seoul on March 18, 2021. Photo by Lee Jin-Man/Pool/AFP via Getty Images.

Trump’s rewriting of history came in a Truth Social post on Feb. 21: “Kim Jung Un of North Korea, who I got to know and got along with very well during my years as President, is not happy with the U.S. and South Korea doing big training and air exercises together. He feels threatened. Even I would constantly complain that South Korea pays us very little to do these extremely expensive and provocative drills. It’s really ridiculous.

“We have 35,000 in jeopardy soldiers there,” Trump said. “I had a deal for full payment to us, $Billions, and Biden gave it away. Such a shame!!!”

That’s not accurate.

“No deal was struck under Trump with Korea on the military burden share,” Andrew Yeo, a professor of politics and director of Asian studies at The Catholic University of America, told us via email. Yeo added that Trump also inflated the number of American troops in Korea. That number is at about 28,500, he said, not 35,000.

Trump’s Ongoing Demands

Even before he took office in January 2017, Trump was making demands that South Korea pay more for the U.S. military presence there.

“We spend a fortune on defending South Korea,” Trump said during a town hall event on March 30, 2016, while he was running for office, adding that he “order[s] thousands … of television sets” from South Korea.

“They’re making so much,” Trump said. “They’re making a fortune. They’re a behemoth. … Why aren’t they reimbursing us? Why aren’t they paying a good portion of the cost?” And then he added this warning: “If we have to walk, we have to walk.”

That sort of rhetoric continued when Trump was in the White House.

In 2019, Trump began to boastrepeatedly — that his tough negotiating with South Korea had resulted in South Korea paying an additional $500 million a year to the U.S., double what it had been paying, according to Trump. But that’s not what happened.

Trump inherited the latest in a string of five-year Special Measures Agreements, which in 2017 — Trump’s first year in office — had South Korea paying the U.S. 950 trillion won, or about $830 million in U.S. dollars. That equates to roughly half of the total non-personnel costs of U.S. troop presence on the peninsula, Bruce Klingner, who specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs as the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia for the conservative Heritage Foundation, told us via email.

When that agreement expired, Trump made it clear he wanted much more from South Korea.

Klingner said: “Trump’s original guidance to his negotiating team was ‘cost plus 50%’ which then became a demand for a 400-500% increase.”

South Korea balked, and the two sides ultimately agreed in early 2019 to a one-year deal that raised South Korea’s contribution to about $930 million, or about 8.2% more than South Korea paid in 2018, according to an announcement from South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Note: That’s a far cry from the “$500 million a year more” that Trump would later say he secured.)

During negotiations the following year, the U.S. and South Korean teams reached a tentative agreement that would have had South Korea increasing its contribution by 13%, which would have brought the total to a little over $1 billion. Trump, however, rejected the offer and continued to make demands for as much as $5 billion, according to a news account from the Diplomat, a U.S.-based magazine focusing on the Asia-Pacific region.

“Apparently Trump refused to budge from that astronomical figure, insisting that a wealthy country like South Korea should pay more,” the Diplomat wrote. “For Seoul, however, such a large hike was a ‘non-starter.’”

Talks stalemated.

In an op-ed for the National Interest in April 2020, Klingner criticized Trump’s hard-line position.

“Excessive monetary demands degrade alliances based on shared principles and goals into mere transactional relationships,” Klingner wrote. “Seeking to profit off U.S. forces overseas is inconsistent with American values and commitments. Alliances are not valued in dollars and cents, and America’s brave sons and daughters in uniform are not mercenaries.”

The Biden Deal

It wasn’t until shortly after Biden took office in January 2021 that negotiations resumed. After three days of negotiations, the two sides announced in March 2021 a new five-year agreement, in which South Korea committed to increasing its cost-sharing for American troops by 13.9% that year. According to the New York Times, South Korea agreed that after 2021 it would “increase its portion annually at the same rate it boosts its defense budget — at an average of 6.1 percent per year until 2025.”

According to the Korea Economic Institute, a U.S. policy think tank dedicated to promoting ties between America and South Korea, the average increase in South Korea’s contribution between each Special Measures Agreement going back to 1991 has been about 8.5%, with the highest of 25.7% coming in the fifth Special Measures Agreement in 2002. So the 13.9% increase in the deal reached with the Biden administration in early 2021 was higher than average.

Klingner told us that having an agreement on a new deal also “removed a major irritant in the alliance relationships.”

And, Klingner said, Biden “ended the demeaning language against our allies and returned to the traditional bi-partisan US view of alliances as in our strategic interest rather than seeing them as transaction relationships.”

So Trump wanted billions, and repeatedly complained that South Korea wasn’t paying enough. But Trump never had a deal in which South Korea agreed to pay “$Billions” for the entire cost of the American military presence on the Korean peninsula. Since no such deal was ever reached, Biden did not “[give] it away.” The only one-year deal reached during the Trump administration raised South Korea’s contribution by 8.2%, slightly less than the average increase in the first year of such agreements over the last several decades.

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