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Putting A Monetary Value On The U.S. Alliance With South Korea


President Trump has been very public about wanting U.S. allies to pay a bigger share of the cost of basing American troops on their soil. In Seoul today, the U.S. and South Korea were in discussions about increasing South Korea's contribution, but the U.S. negotiator broke off the meeting. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: State Department negotiator James DeHart told reporters that Seoul was unresponsive to U.S. demands, and so he walked out of talks to give them time to reconsider. Local media have reported that the Trump administration wants Seoul to contribute around $5 billion to cover the cost of the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops based in South Korea, a more than 400% increase over last year. Defense Secretary Mark Esper conveyed the Trump administration's message here last Friday.


MARK ESPER: This is a very strong alliance we have. But Korea is a wealthy country and could and should pay more to help offset the cost of defense.

KUHN: The cost of any alliance can be broken down into its component parts - troops, equipment and operating expenses. South Korea currently covers about 40% of operating costs. It also provides land, construction and several thousand South Korean troops to augment U.S. forces. But there's more to it than that.

PARK HWEE-RHAK: We need to acknowledge that U.S. and South Korean alliances are not in good shape

KUHN: Park Hwee-rhak, a defense expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, argues that the U.S. and South Korea are not just two sides in a transaction; they're blood brothers.

PARK: We shed our blood in Vietnam, and you shed your blood in South Korea and Vietnam together. So we supported your country, and you supported us without calculating what kind of benefit I can get from this support.

KUHN: South Korea has sent troops to fight in Vietnam and provide security in hot spots from Iraq and South Sudan to East Timor and Haiti. The basing of U.S. forces abroad, meanwhile, gives the U.S. the ability to project power around the globe to secure commercial interests worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

BRUCE BENNETT: Roughly a third of U.S. trade comes out of Northeast Asia.

KUHN: Bruce Bennett is a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a U.S. government-funded think tank.

BENNETT: If there were a conflict in Korea, that trade would be severely disrupted.

KUHN: Allies, Bennett notes, allow the U.S. to justify its projection of power for its own aim.

BENNETT: They send troops to a variety of places in the world that provide us stability and give us an ability to say, we have a coalition doing these things, and it's not just U.S. imperialism where we're operating overseas.

KUHN: Alliances, he adds, also boost U.S. political influence in countries where it has troops, including South Korea.

BENNETT: We have an ability to turn to the Korean government and say, you know, we'd really kind of like you to do this. We don't always get our way, but if we didn't have forces there, we probably never would get our way.

KUHN: It's hard to put a monetary value on what the U.S. gets out of its alliances, although it's clear they're worth a lot. Park Hwee-rhak argues that both the U.S. and South Korea have benefited from the alliance, but if, as President Trump has warned, the U.S. pulls out its troops, it'll be South Korea that's left to face its neighbor to the north. That may be acceptable to Americans...

PARK: But South Koreans - it is life-or-death situation.

KUHN: Any deal on defense cost-sharing must be approved by South Korean lawmakers. And while polls show most South Koreans want U.S. troops to stay, a majority oppose a sharp increase in Seoul's contribution.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOZEE'S "AURORA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.