State auditors are reviewing a request by a civic group for an inspection into the use of Seoul’s payment to support the upkeep of 28,500 American troops here, amid growing calls for more transparency in the spending of the defense funds.
The Board of Audit and Inspection said that it would visit the ministries of foreign affairs and defense and the Seoul Regional Tax Office for five days, starting Jan. 20, to collect related documents and check for tax evasion involving the funds.
The Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea, a Seoul-based progressive civic group, requested the probe in October, claiming that the U.S. military attempted to evade taxes on interest due on unspent amounts of the defense funds.
“We are now taking routine steps to review the request and find out whether or not the case calls for an inspection,” a BAI official said, declining to be named.
Since 1991, Seoul has shouldered part of the costs of keeping American troops here as a deterrent against North Korea. Its payment to the U.S. military has been used for wages for Korean civilian workers, construction projects and logistical support.
Critics have long argued that a thorough investigation should be carried out into the U.S. Forces Korea’s use of Seoul’s payment, given that large amounts of the cash have remained unspent or been used for unspecified purposes.
After it looks through documents from the ministries and the tax office, the BAI will determine whether to launch a full-scale investigation into the case.
Some observers said that the auditors began the preliminary probe as public sentiment has worsened after Seoul’s agreement to pay 920 billion won ($866 million) this year to support the USFK, an increase of 5.8 percent from last year.
Last Saturday, the allies struck a deal to renew the Special Measures Agreement governing Seoul’s share of the cost. Under the deal, Washington agreed to enhance transparency in the use of the funds through a set of measures including offering Seoul detailed reports on how the funds are allocated and spent.
The allies’ cost-sharing deal requires parliamentary approval. A tough political battle is likely to ensue as opposition lawmakers criticize the government over the rise.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)