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Opinion Trump’s Korea policy was even more reckless than we thought

A news broadcast of a North Korean military parade, held in Pyongyang, on a television screen at Seoul Station in Seoul on April 26. (Woohae Cho/Bloomberg News)
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President Trump had a lot of crazy and dangerous foreign policy ideas his staff worked to thwart. Some of the most reckless ones came closer to becoming reality than the public knew at the time, including Trump’s long-stated desire to withdraw all U.S. troops from South Korea.

Trump regularly disparaged South Korea, a key U.S. ally in Asia, and repeatedly threatened to order the U.S. military to pull out all 28,500 U.S. troops stationed there, former defense secretary Mark T. Esper writes in a new book. Esper and other top officials worked to dissuade and delay Trump from ordering this withdrawal. And although Trump never gave the order, he never gave up the idea.

Trump said that the South Koreans were “horrible to deal with” and were “ripping us off,” Esper writes. The troop withdrawal issue was wrapped up in Trump’s demand that South Korea increase its financial contribution for the hosting of U.S. troops by 400 percent.

“They sell us Samsung TVs and we protect them. It makes no sense,” Esper quoted Trump as saying.

Trump brought up the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea several times during Esper’s 15-month stint as defense secretary, Esper told me in an interview. The consequences of such a move, Esper argued to Trump, would be disastrous, including losing the ability to deter North Korea. The move would also surely be welcomed by China, which has long sought to push the U.S. military out of Asia.

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“This comes up repeatedly throughout my tenure. Each time, I have to push back on that,” Esper told me. “I didn’t want that to happen, and I knew it wouldn’t happen on my watch.”

At one point, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to stall Trump by telling him, “Mr. President, you should make that [withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea] a second-term priority,” Esper writes. Trump grinned and responded, “Yeah, yeah, second term.”

Esper took Trump’s desire to withdraw all U.S. troops from South Korea seriously, but it was only one of many threats that he worried about. Trump also often said he wanted to remove all U.S. troops from Africa, and in June 2020, he ordered Esper to remove 9,500 troops from Germany, giving the military an implausible three-month deadline to carry out the move.

Esper worked with military officials to mitigate the downsides of the Germany decision, he writes in his book. The fear that Trump might order a withdrawal from South Korea was one reason Esper says he stayed on the job, because he couldn’t be sure whether his successor would follow Trump’s order and begin removing troops, Esper told me.

Some might see Esper’s justification as self-serving. But Esper’s fear of Trump’s recklessness was not unfounded. Just a couple of months after Esper became secretary of the army in late 2017, Trump began publicly taunting Kim Jong Un by bragging on Twitter about the size of his “nuclear button.” A few weeks later, Esper received a call from the Pentagon telling him Trump was about to publicly announce that all U.S. military family members were ordered to leave South Korea immediately.

Esper was shocked, knowing that this could be interpreted by the North Koreans (wrongly) as a prelude to an attack, which could prompt North Korea to strike first. Even if that didn’t happen, the news would likely cause panic in the region and tank South Korean markets. But while Esper was waiting for more guidance from the White House, Trump changed his mind.

“I never received a clear explanation,” Esper writes, “but somebody talked the president out of sending the tweet announcing the evacuation of Americans from South Korea. Crisis averted. War avoided. I was dumbfounded at the time as to what was happening.”

Overall, Esper has praise for some of Trump’s actions, including his decision to engage diplomatically with Kim as a means of avoiding conflict. He agrees with Trump’s desire to press allies to contribute more to common defense.

But he is scathing about Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which was championed by Pompeo. And Esper is critical of the “war hawks” in the White House he saw as itching for conflict with Iran, specifically national security adviser Robert O’Brien and Vice President Mike Pence.

In our interview, Esper said that Trump is not fit to be commander in chief. Any elected leader, especially the president of the United States, must embody the basic attribute of being able to put the country over himself. He must have principles and integrity, Esper told me, saying, “President Trump doesn’t meet the mark for me on those things.”

The sensational details in Esper’s book confirm much of what we already knew about Trump. He doesn’t understand or even much care about the strategic implications of his decisions. He sees alliances as transactional at best and at worst, a needless burden. He cares about dollars and cents more than democracy or human rights.

The clear implication of Esper’s warning is that a second-term Trump would have no restraints and nobody around to temper his reckless or thoughtless instincts. That means that ideas Trump has long held — like withdrawing all troops from South Korea — are not just a matter for history.