Just because the Trump administration is talking tough on North Korea, threatening a “major conflict” if Pyongyang doesn’t give up its nuclear program, that doesn’t mean that President Donald Trump is ready to embrace South Korea, either. In fact, it seems the president sees a potential military crisis as the perfect time to lean on its ally, too, threatening to to pull out of a five-year-old free trade deal that he characterized as “horrible” and blamed, unsurprisingly, on Hillary Clinton.
“It is unacceptable, it is a horrible deal made by Hillary,” Trump told Reuters on Thursday of the U.S.-South Korean trade deal, or KORUS, which was approved by Congress in 2011 during Clinton’s secretary of state tenure. “It’s a horrible deal, and we are going to re-negotiate that deal or terminate it.”
As with his attacks on the North American Free Trade Agreement, Trump has taken a hard line on bilateral agreements that result in U.S. trade deficits. According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, here was a total of $112.2 billion worth of commerce exchanged between the U.S. and South Korea in 2016, The New York Times reports. And while South Korea has a $10.7 billion trade deficit in services with the United States, it enjoys a $27.7 billion trade surplus in goods under the deal. A spokesperson for South Korea’s foreign ministry told Reuters that Seoul would continue its “efforts to explain to the United States the mutually reciprocal outcome” of the agreement, but would also prepare for “countermeasures.”
But Trump’s attempt to strong-arm South Korea isn’t limited to the trade deal. He also apparently wants the country to pay up for an advanced missile system that the U.S. is currently setting up to help defend South Korea against a military attack by its northern neighbor—a possibility that Trump himself has heightened by dramatically escalating tensions on the peninsula. “I informed South Korea it would be appropriate if they paid,” Trump told Reuters of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD. “It’s a billion-dollar system. It’s phenomenal, shoots missiles right out of the sky.”
Notwithstanding a chorus of opposition to the Thaad system from China, Russia, and some in South Korea, the U.S. deployed the technology in March of this year. And while Trump expressed confusion as to why the U.S. is footing the bill, one State Department official dismissed the idea that Seoul would ever be in control of the technology. “We want to retain THAAD in our arsenal, consistent with all other U.S. weapons systems deployed on the Korean peninsula. We own them. We retain them. We have the right to redeploy them,” the official told Reuters. South Koreans, too, were confused. The New York Times reports that Trump’s comments shook up the ongoing presidential race and left lawmakers scrambling to figure out what Trump meant and what the demand might mean for the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
Trump’s remarks follow weeks of hostility between Trump and Kim Jung Un, which has raised concerns throughout the international community. Earlier this week, as the U.S. and its allies conducted naval drills in the Yellow Sea and a U.S. submarine arrived off the coast of South Korea, Pyongyang put on a display of its military might by staging a series of long-range artillery drills. And while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson struck a measured tone in a pair of interviews on Thursday—dismissing the premise that Kim is crazy and insisting that the U.S. is seeking denuclearization, not a regime change—Trump himself took a far less diplomatic approach just hours later. “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trumps told Reuters. “We’d love to solve things diplomatically, but it’s very difficult,” the president continued, adding that he hopes Kim—whom he characterized as a “maniac” during the 2016 election—is “rational.”