President Donald Trump made a baffling remark at a fundraising dinner in Missouri on March 14. “We have a very big trade deficit with them, and we protect them,” he said, referring to Korea. “We lose money on trade, and we lose money on the military,” he said. “We have right now 32,000 soldiers on the border between North and South Korea,” he said. “Let’s see what happens.” The Washington Post, which reported on this speech, interpreted it as a threat that Trump would withdraw U.S. forces if he did not get what he wanted in trade negotiations with South Korea.
The president “did not suggest removing American forces from South Korea,” the White House explained in response to a Korean media inquiry regarding the truth of Trump’s remarks. Yet until this moment, the White House’s explanations excusing Trump’s extreme comments have been questionable as to whether they reveal Trump’s true intentions. At the March 14 dinner, Trump criticized allies who did not care about the U.S. with respect to common issues. In that context, he was referring to U.S. Forces Korea in view of Trump’s strong dissatisfaction with Korea’s trade surplus with the United States. Officially speaking, since Trump cited the number of U.S. troops in Korea as 32,000, there are actually 28,500 troops, so it looks like his remark was simply an unscripted statement without any thorough review beforehand. Still, at the moment, Trump’s true intentions are not known, and his threatening words are intimidating.
Trump may have come up with the idea of leveraging U.S. forces in Korea to win concessions on a number of trade issues, including amending the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. It may be an attempt to pave the way for favorable negotiations on the defense budget.
In any case, it is highly inappropriate for the president of the United States to carelessly make a statement of such crucial importance to the Korean peninsula. Harry Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said, “I believe he (Kim) would do a victory dance,” if U.S. forces were to withdraw from South Korea. President Trump should not follow through with the dangerous idea of using U.S. Forces Korea as leverage for negotiations on trade and defense budgets. Trump must explain himself with respect to statements that suggest withdrawal of troops.