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President Trump’s imaginary numbers on military aid to South Korea

At a cabinet meeting on Feb. 12, President Trump said the U.S. spends '$5 billion worth of protection' for South Korea. (Video: The Washington Post)

“South Korea — we defend them and lose a tremendous amount of money. Billions of dollars a year defending them. And working with Secretary Pompeo and John Bolton, they agreed to pay, yesterday, $500 million more toward their defense. Five hundred million, with a couple of phone calls. I said, ‘Why didn’t you do this before?’ They said, ‘Nobody asked.’ … But South Korea is costing us $5 billion a year. And they pay — they were paying about $500 million for $5 billion worth of protection. And we have to do better than that. So they’ve agreed to pay $500 million more.”

— President Trump, in a Cabinet meeting, Feb. 12, 2019

“You saw South Korea, they were paying us $500 million a year. I say, ‘You got to do more. You got to give more.’ Anyway, now they’re up to almost $900 million. That was, like, two phone calls.”

— Trump, at a campaign rally in El Paso, Feb. 11, 2019

“You know it’s very expensive to keep troops there. You do know that. We have 40,000 troops in South Korea. It’s very expensive.”

— Trump, in an interview on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” Feb. 3, 2019

The United States does keep a large military presence in South Korea, spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but Trump’s figures are wildly inflated. Let’s dig in.

The Facts

The United States and South Korea signed a mutual defense treaty in 1953, after the United States led a United Nations force that helped repel an invasion from North Korea. U.S. troops have been stationed in South Korea for more than a half-century, and the two countries began to share costs under agreements dating to 1991.

The American contingent in South Korea acts as “a vital security guarantor that helps to ensure that the more than 51 million Koreans and over 200,000 Americans living and working throughout South Korea are protected from real and present North Korean threats,” according to a 2018 report from U.S. Forces Korea.

“United States Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, and Marines have been stationed in South Korea for over half a century, and the requirement for a robust alliance has never been greater,” the 2018 report said. “Situated at the epicenter of one of the world’s most geopolitically volatile regions, the Korean Peninsula is of particular strategic importance to U.S. policy and posture across East Asia. With North Korea continuing to engage in frequent provocations that threaten the stability of the United States and its Allies, the enduring strength of the Republic of Korea (ROK)-U. S. Alliance is paramount to the mission of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) and U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM).”

The 1953 defense arrangement “is central to both our strategic interests in the Asia Pacific and our ability to deal with the unpredictable and frequently aggressive behavior of the North Korean regime,” according to a 2013 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The State Department says: “The United States and the R.O.K. [South Korea] share a long history of friendship and cooperation based on shared values and interests. The two countries work together to combat regional and global threats and to strengthen their economies. … The United States and the R.O.K. coordinate closely on the North Korean nuclear issue and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. As the R.O.K.’s economy has developed (it joined the OECD in 1996), trade and investment ties have become an increasingly important aspect of the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship.”

Notice a trend? The State Department, the U.S. military command in South Korea and the Senate Armed Services Committee describe the deal as mutually beneficial. The South Koreans get help defending their homeland; the United States gets to keep close tabs on a volatile region for its own strategic interests.

Let’s take a closer look at Trump’s numbers.

“South Korea is costing us $5 billion a year. And they pay — they were paying about $500 million for $5 billion worth of protection.”

This is false. South Korea in 2018 paid the United States about $830 million under the burden-sharing agreement, covering approximately 40 percent of the cost of the U.S. deployment. So the total cost for the United States would be somewhere around $1.25 billion, not $5 billion. The U.S. share became greater than South Korea’s in 2010.

“Under the current five-year SMA [cost-sharing agreement] that expires on December 31, 2018, the ROK provided approximately $830 million per year,” according to the State Department. (Because of fluctuating currency exchange rates, the South Korean contribution for 2018 has been pegged at $830 million to $860 million.)

“They’ve agreed to pay $500 million more. … That was, like, two phone calls.”

False. The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump administration officials sought a 50 percent increase in South Korea’s contribution. What they got was a much more modest 8.2 percent, with the Korean contribution increasing to $925 million under a one-year deal signed Feb. 10. (It didn’t take “two phone calls,” but rather many rounds of negotiations spanning nearly a year.)

“Although the U.S. spoke highly of the ROK’s contribution for the alliance, it demanded the ROK to significantly increase the total amount of contributions corresponding to the ROK’s national status and economic power,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in announcing the deal Feb. 10. “However, the ROK Government agreed on an 8.2 percent increase, the same level as its defense budget increase for 2019, comprehensively taking into account USFK’s contribution for the defense of the Korean Peninsula, the ROK’s financial capability, and the security circumstances of the Korean Peninsula.”

The Defense Department, the White House and the South Korean Embassy in Washington did not respond to emailed questions about these costs.

Trump is not alone in raising concerns about the cost-sharing agreement. The Senate committee’s report from 2013 noted that “contributions from the South Korean government … have not kept pace with U.S. costs” and questioned several projects on which the funds were being spent at the time.

“U. S. contributions to the cost of maintaining forces in South Korea grew by more than $500 million between 2008 and 2012,” according to then-Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee when the 2013 report was released. “By comparison, South Korea’s contributions under the U.S.-Korea Special Measures Agreement grew by about $42 million during that same period.”

On the other hand, South Korea covered 90 percent of the cost of a new military base that came with a $10.8 billion price tag. It’s the largest U.S. military base overseas. The country has increased its defense spending at a faster rate than the United States over the past decade, reaching $39 billion in 2017, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

“We have 40,000 troops in South Korea.”

A Pentagon spokesman told us that the number is actually 28,500. That’s roughly what the Defense Department’s Defense Manpower Data Center reported as of December. The number was about the same the previous year. “There are roughly 28,000 service members in South Korea, deterring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un,” according to a Defense Department news release in December 2017.

The Pinocchio Test

It’s ironic that the president, consumed as he is with denuclearizing North Korea, throws out demonstrably false numbers. These claims are all carelessly off target and worthy of a cumulative Four Pinocchios.

Especially wild is Trump’s claim that the United States spends $5 billion a year defending South Korea, when it’s closer to $1.25 billion. His boast that his administration negotiated an extra $500 million contribution with a couple of phone calls is just as false. South Korea is ponying up less than $100 million in extra funding this year.

Less egregious but still noteworthy is Trump’s inflated figure for the number of U.S. troops in Korea. His own Defense Department told us it’s 28,500, not 40,000.

Four Pinocchios

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Four Pinocchios
"South Korea is costing us $5 billion a year. And they pay — they were paying about $500 million for $5 billion worth of protection. And we have to do better than that. So they’ve agreed to pay $500 million more.”
in remarks at a Cabinet meeting
Tuesday, February 12, 2019