South Korea and US officials sign deal to launch a joint working group to discuss deployment of THAAD in this file photo
South Korea and US officials sign deal to launch a joint working group to discuss deployment of THAAD in this file photo

Expectation and uncertainty are being mixed in South Korea toward its alliance with the United States as President Donald Trump advocating the “America First” policy was sworn in as the 45th American leader on Friday.

Politicians and media outlets here anticipated the status quo in its alliance with the new U.S. administration to be maintained as South Korea provides strategic interests to the U.S., the country’s traditional ally on which it heavily depends to defend from nuclear and missile threats from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Uncertainty South Korea worries about is being centered on the “America First” policy that could lead to stronger demand for Seoul paying higher cost for over 28,000 U.S. forces stationed here, the legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

In an inaugural address, the U.S. president vowed to “reinforce old alliances” with traditional allies, but he stressed that his country subsidized “the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”

Washington, which is struggling with twin deficits, has asked, or forced, its allies to bear higher costs for its troops all around the world, which are stationed at least partly to maintain the American military sway over regions.

During his presidential campaign, Trump claimed a security “free ride” of the allies, saying South Korea can cover 100 percent costs for U.S. forces in its soil. Seoul now pays about 900 billion won (770 million U.S. dollars) a year, around half of the total costs for U.S. soldiers.

Yonhap news agency estimated that the Trump administration may include costs to operate the U.S. missile shield, which the two allies agreed to deploy in southeastern South Korea by the end of this year, in the bill South Korea must pay for the United States.

For South Korea’s part, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment means its contribution to the U.S. strategy to expand military influence in Northeast Asia, but the new U.S. government would regard it as a tool only to protect South Korean people, not U.S. citizens, from the DPRK’s nuclear threats.

The government-sponsored broadcaster KBS reported on rising worries about increased payment for U.S. forces in South Korea, and conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo predicted heavier burden for U.S. allies in accordance with the U.S. attempt to strengthen its military.

On the other hand, expectations remain for the U.S.-South Korea alliance to keep the status quo given that Seoul contributes much to U.S. strategic interests in the region, local newspaper Joongang Ilbo reported citing experts.

South Korea provides a huge land for U.S. military bases free of charge, while purchasing a massive amount of U.S. weapons every year. In the past 10 years, Seoul spent around 36 trillion won (31 billion U.S. dollars) to buy weapons from Washington alone.

Showing a subtle change, close aides to President Trump recently stressed the importance of the bilateral alliance, with one of them describing it as “sticky rice cake.”

South Korean lawmakers also put emphasis on the alliance amid the power vacuum, caused by the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who serves as acting president, sent a congratulatory letter to Trump ahead of his inauguration.

Conservative parties, including the ruling Saenuri Party and its splinter Righteous Party, emphasized the need for stronger alliance with the new U.S. administration to secure national interests and firm security.

Progressive parties, including the main opposition Minjoo Party and its offshoot People’s Party, demanded flexible response to new U.S. policies, stressing the bigger role of lawmakers in diplomacy amid the power vacuum.

The launch of the new U.S. government came at a time when concerns arose here about Pyongyang’s test-launch of a long-range rocket that will escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula and may stoke the new U.S. president’s hard-line policy.

Top DPRK leader Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s Day address that his country had entered the final stage of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic rocket. The following day, Trump warned in his Twitter account that the DPRK’s development of a missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland won’t happen.

Pyongyang carried out its fourth and fifth nuclear tests in January and September last year respectively, boosting expectations that it may be coming close to the development of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

“It is natural for President Trump to express a hard-line stance on North Korea (DPRK) as the North Korean leader heralded an ICBM test-fire” Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the private Sejong Institute, told Xinhua. The ICBM stands for intercontinental ballistic missile.

Cheong said that if Pyongyang test-launches an ICBM, the Trump administration can consider a so-called “surgical strike” at the DPRK, but he noted that the strike cannot happen due to shortage of U.S. intelligence on where and how many the DPRK has nuclear weapons.

The researcher said it would be desirable to resume talks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, proposing a four-way dialogue to be held before restarting the long-stalled six-party talks in a bid to speed up negotiations.

The six-party talks, which involve South Korea, the DPRK, China, the U.S., Russia and Japan, have been suspended since late 2008. The researcher-proposed four-way dialogue excludes Japan and Russia.

Cheong said all issues must be put on the dialogue table to stop the DPRK’s nuclear tests and long-range missile launches and to freeze all of its nuclear facility in return for lifting all of international sanctions on Pyongyang and halting the annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises. Enditem

Source:Yoo Seungki, Xinhua/

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