Trump Squeezes South Korea

But demands that Seoul pay more for the U.S. military presence seem to be piquing the Koreans


The Trump Administration has ratcheted up its demands on South Korea to share the cost of basing 28,500 U.S. servicemembers on the Korean Peninsula. Washington expects Seoul to increase its contribution from $896 million in 2019 to $5 billion in 2020. Now, as a new round of cost-sharing negotiations are ongoing, Predata signals suggest South Koreans are more focused on the financial burden of the U.S. military presence than on the security umbrella it provides. 

The basis for the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula is a mutual defense treaty signed by both counties in 1953. And throughout the cost-sharing negotiations, Korean internet users have been scrutinizing that treaty. Traffic on Korean-language web pages about the treaty picked up in early March after the 2019 cost-sharing agreement was signed and has remained elevated since. By contrast, English-speaking internet users showed interest in the treaty in 2017 through mid-2018, when tensions and then diplomatic engagement with North Korea dominated international headlines. So though American and international observers view the U.S. military presence in a security context, Korean audiences seem to view it in an economic one, turning their attention to the foundational treaty as the financial burden has increased.


Moreover, Koreans are venting their frustration with the burden-sharing negotiations online. Viewer engagement with videos of South Korean news reports covering the negotiations has risen to its highest level ever. Notably, the videos driving the spike are highly critical of the U.S. military presence and were posted several months ago, which means that Korean internet users are actively seeking and engaging with anti-U.S. content.


In addition, other signals show the economic aspect of the negotiations may be more salient to Koreans than the United States realizes. Since Washington and Seoul opened the latest round of talks in late October, online attention to subjects related to the South Korean economy has climbed steadily to hit its highest level in more than a year. Online attention to South Korean security issues, meanwhile, has remained relatively muted. Washington’s $5-billion demand comes at a time when South Koreans are on edge about the economy: The export-dependent country has been hit hard by the U.S.-China trade war, and its third-quarter growth slowed more than expected.