President Donald Trump on Wednesday appeared to threaten to withdraw US troops from South Korea if he can’t get a better trade deal with Seoul.
In a fundraising speech in Missouri, Trump told donors South Korea had become rich but that American politicians never negotiated better deals, according to audio obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed to CNN by an attendee.
“We have a very big trade deficit with them, and we protect them,” Trump said. “We lose money on trade, and we lose money on the military.”
“We have right now 32,000 soldiers on the border between North and South Korea. Let’s see what happens,” Trump said.
The President went on to argue, “Our allies care about themselves. They don’t care about us.”
The two countries signed the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) in 2007 and, since then, trade between the two countries has grown. However, the US’ trade deficit with Korea stood at $17.0 billion, according to figures from 2016.
On Friday, South Korean Finance Minister, Kim Dong-yeon, appeared to hit back at Trump’s remarks.
“We don’t think it’s ideal to link an economic issue with such an issue [the withdrawal of US troops],” said Kim, while speaking on South Korean TBS radio.
“The South Korean government, with national interest of South Korea as priority, will consider striking a balance in the national economy and among multiple industries,” said Kim.
“We have many issues to take into consideration dealing with the United States as well.”
Kim’s comments, the first by a senior member of the South Korean government, follow the arrival of South Korea’s foreign minister in Washington to discuss the proposed face-to-face meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
South Korea and the US maintain a longstanding defense partnership.
At the end of this month, joint military exercises involving tens of thousands of troops from both countries are set to resume, following their postponement during the Olympic Games.
Last year, the annual exercises, code-named Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, saw an estimated 3,600 additional US service members deployed to join the 28,000 US troops already based in South Korea to participate in the drills, which included ground, air, naval and special operations field exercises.
The United States and South Korea assert that the annual exercises, which have been carried out regularly for nearly 40 years, are strictly defensive and non-provocative.
Both exercises, according to US Forces Korea, are designed to “highlight the longstanding military partnership” between the two countries and improve stability and security on the Korean Peninsula.
However, the exercises usually draw a fierce response from North Korean.
During last year’s drills, Pyongyang launched multiple missile tests and held a massive artillery exercise at the end of April.
The US and South Korea have maintained this year’s drills will proceed as planned, despite the thawing in relations with the North.
CNN’s Yoonjung Seo, Sophie Jeong, Steve George and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.