Japan And South Korea Rattled By Trump's Talk Of Closing U.S. Bases

Nov 10, 2016
Originally published on November 11, 2016 11:46 am

In an English-language class at Seoul's Kookmin University, students practice conversation by discussing current events. And the election of Donald Trump is a global current event that's shaken them up.

"In Korean, dey-bak means something happened unexpected," says Youjin Lee.

Such as the unexpected result of the American election. It brings big uncertainty for U.S. foreign policy around the globe, including Northeast Asia. During the campaign, Trump argued that alliance partners don't pay their fair share for U.S. military bases in their countries and suggested he could pull them out.

"We defend Japan. We defend Germany. We defend South Korea. We defend Saudi Arabia. We defend countries. They do not pay us what they should be paying us because we are providing a tremendous service and we're losing a fortune," Trump said during the first presidential debate.

In truth, South Korea and Japan have both paid billions over the years to support the bases within their borders. And America has wanted to be there for its own security reasons.

"Trump has said some tough things about America's alliance relationships around the world," says Robert Kelly, who teaches international relations at South Korea's Pusan University. "On the other hand, Trump's also sort of wildly reversed himself. So there's a lot of uncertainty about what he actually wants to do."

"I'll be honest and say I don't think he really knows himself," Kelly adds. "I don't think he really knows a great deal or cares a great deal about foreign affairs."

Trump did speak by phone Thursday with both Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. In both calls, Trump said he would support the current security alliances with the Asian democracies. He told Park, "We are with you all the way."

The cost of U.S. forces

But the cost-sharing agreement between the U.S. and South Korea on maintaining bases is coming up for renegotiation next year. Korea paid $850 million dollars for base maintenance in 2014, according to its budget. But Trump foreign policy adviser Pete Hoesktra said this week maybe that's not enough.

"The threats that they face — if they're not willing to pay for it or if they just go into it saying, 'We don't have to worry about it, the United States is going to pay for it,' that is not a healthy relationship," Hoekstra said.

Beyond security, Trump's rhetoric has been toughest on trade.

"There's anxiety for what Trump means for trade relationships, because he's really hammered on that," Kelly says. "Asian trading, exports are really important for economies out here."

Kelly says changes to trade agreements would have punishing effects on export-driven Asian economies and on prices back home in the U.S.

"If he really throws up tariff barriers, that will drive up the prices of Asian goods. Samsung televisions and Honda Civics and whatnot would be significantly more expensive," Kelly says.

But just what a Trump administration will do when it's in power is unknown — and not only to Americans. Korean college student Yuseok Kang surveyed his friends for their reactions.

"They all are worried about side effects by his election," Kang says. "And they are worried about what he's going to do next."

Haeryun Kang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A huge question right now in Asia, especially longtime U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, is this. What does a Trump presidency mean for us? The uncertainty has a lot to do with what Trump said during his campaign about these alliances. NPR's Elise Hu reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What happens if you feel like you can't handle something?

ELISE HU, BYLINE: At Seoul's Kookmin University, an English language class discusses current events, and the election of Donald Trump is one event that's shaken these students up. Youjin Lee is one of them.

YOUJIN LEE: In Korean, (speaking Korean) means something happened that's unexpected.

HU: Like the unexpected result of America's election. It means major uncertainty for U.S. foreign policy. Trump during the campaign argued allies don't pay their fair share for the U.S. bases and troops stationed in their countries and said he could pull them out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We defend Japan. We defend Germany. We defend South Korea. We defend Saudi Arabia. We defend countries. They do not pay us what they should be paying us because we are providing tremendous service, and we're losing a fortune.

HU: South Korea and Japan have both paid billions over the years to support the bases within their borders. And with a rising China and a nuclear-armed North Korea, America has wanted to be there for security reasons. But Trump is calling that policy into question.

ROBERT KELLY: Trump has said some tough things about America's alliance relationships around the world.

HU: Robert Kelly teaches international relations at South Korea's Pusan University.

KELLY: On the other hand, Trump's also sort of wildly reversed himself, and so there's a lot of sort of uncertainty about what exactly he wants to do. I'll be honest and say I don't actually think he really knows himself. I don't think he really knows a great deal or cares a great deal about foreign affairs.

HU: Trump did speak by phone with both Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye this morning. In both calls, Trump said he would support the current security alliances with these Asian democracies. He told President Park, quote, "we are with you all the way."

But the cost-sharing agreement with Korea for the U.S. maintaining bases here is coming up for renegotiation next year. Korea paid $850 million for bases in 2014, but Trump foreign policy adviser Pete Hoekstra said this week maybe that's not enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE HOEKSTRA: The threats that they face - if they're not willing to pay for it or they just go into it and say, we don't have to worry about it; the United States is going to pay for it - that is not a healthy relationship.

HU: So the upcoming negotiation could be a flashpoint. Beyond security, Trump's rhetoric has been toughest on trade, and for Japan and Korea, that matters. Robert Kelly...

KELLY: There's anxiety about what Trump means for trade relationships because he's really hammered on that. Asian exports to United States are important for economies out here.

HU: He says changes to trade agreements could hurt export-driven Asian economies and U.S. consumers.

KELLY: If he really does throw up tariff barriers, that will drive up the prices of Asian goods. That means Samsung televisions and Honda Civics and whatnot will be significantly more expensive.

HU: But just what a Trump administration will really do when it's in power is unknown not just to Americans.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's the word?

HU: Back in the English class, Korean college student Yuseok Kang surveyed his friends for their reactions.

YUSEOK KANG: They all are worried about the side effects of his elections, and they are worried of what he's going to do next.

HU: That's what he says in English. In Korean, the trending term on social media here is (speaking Korean). It translates to mind collapse. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.