WASHINGTON (Reuters) - South Korea would have to embrace the idea of taking a greater share of defense costs “if there is a huge demand” for this from the future U.S. administration of Donald Trump, a South Korean minister said on Monday
This would mean having to cut back on other budget spending, inviting opposition and posing a dilemma for the Seoul government, Chang Myoung-jin, South Korea’s minister for defense acquisition program administration, told a Washington seminar.
Trump prompted alarm during the U.S. election campaign by saying he would be willing to withdraw American forces stationed in South Korea unless Seoul paid a greater share of their cost. He also said he would consider allowing South Korea and Japan to acquire their own nuclear weapons rather than rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, Chang stressed South Korea’s important strategic role in defending not just against nuclear-armed North Korea, but China and Russia too.
“If, and this maybe a big if, President-elect Trump and his administration, when it comes to alliance with (South Korea) ... if there is an huge demand for more burden in the part of (South Korea) ... Korea will inevitably have to embrace that,” he said.
Chang put projected South Korean defense spending next year at $40 billion, which was needed to cover enhancing weapons systems and maintaining and replacing old ones.
“The welfare budget has been on a steady increase, which has had some restricting impact on our defense budget and on the same page the threat that has been posed by North Korea has been increasing, so that really puts us in much dilemma.
“To have a lot of defense budget secured would be all good; however it will mean we will have to cut back on other budgets, which will inevitably invite a lot of resistance and if that ever happens, the (South Korean) government will place ourselves in a dilemma.
“But our focus and priority will have to be on putting our first priority on defense in my personal view,” he said.
Chang said South Korea had committed itself to a no-nuclearization policy, which meant it had to concentrate on anti-missile defenses. He urged greater defense technology cooperation with the United States, which has been limited by U.S. restrictions on technology transfer.
Seoul contributes more than $800 million a year toward the costs of maintaining the 28,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea, about 40 percent of the total.
The South Korean president’s deputy national security adviser said Michael Flynn, who Trump has nominated to be his national security adviser, told him last week he would work to strengthen the “vital” South Korean alliance.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jonathan Oatis