South Korea and the US are poised to hold intensive negotiations in the coming weeks on Seoul’s share of the cost of stationing 28,500 American troops here.
The two sides “broadened their mutual understanding and common ground” at the sixth and latest round of negotiations in Washington earlier this month, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry. They are expected to hold the next round of talks in Seoul early next month.
The euphemistic description of the latest discussion is nothing more than an acknowledgment that the two sides remain apart on sharing costs.
The allies have been under increasing pressure to quickly conclude the negotiations on this year’s deal, the Special Measures Agreement.
There are concerns the political calendar in Korea, including April’s general election, could delay the parliamentary ratification process.
Prolonged talks could also force Korean workers employed by US Forces Korea to go on unpaid leave, should there be no funds assigned for them due to the absence of a new SMA. The USFK is reportedly warning Seoul it will send furlough notices within weeks to almost 9,000 Korean employees at its bases if the two countries fail to reach a deal soon.
What may be more worrisome than these technical matters is the possibility that discord over defense cost-sharing will have a further negative impact on ties between the allies, which have been increasingly strained over how to approach North Korea.
Washington has worried about what it sees as Seoul’s preoccupation with promoting inter-Korean cooperation in the absence of progress in denuclearizing the North. Its concerns seem to have been deepened by President Moon Jae-in’s recent push to allow South Koreans to make individual tours to the North in a bid to circumvent US-led international sanctions on the recalcitrant regime.
A major fault line in the cost-sharing talks has been whether to expand the scope of the SMA.
Seoul has insisted the negotiations should proceed within the existing SMA framework. But Washington has demanded coverage be expanded to include extra costs such as those for rotating American troops to the peninsula, holding joint military drills and deploying US strategic assets along with providing support for family members of US soldiers stationed here.
The Status of Forces Agreement obliges Seoul to provide facilities and sites to the USFK, while the US is supposed to pay for all other costs for its military presence here. Under the SMA that came into force in 1991, Seoul has shouldered partial costs for local workers hired by the USFK, construction work at US military bases and for other logistics.
Washington’s demands that go beyond the SMA boundaries seem to reflect US President Donald Trump’s call for a more than fivefold increase in Seoul’s contributions to $5 billion.
Under a defense-cost sharing pact with Washington that expired on Dec. 31, Seoul paid about $900 million last year for the upkeep of the USFK. The sum was an 8.2 percent increase from the previous year.
US officials have recently signaled their intent to reach a deal at about half of the amount Washington initially requested. The sum would still be regarded as excessive by many here.
Hopefully, the US will settle for a compromise that could enable it to avoid giving the impression of being too heavy-handed with a key ally.
From this viewpoint, it was inappropriate that the US secretaries of state and defense recently published a rare joint commentary in a US newspaper calling for Seoul to pay more for the upkeep of the USFK.
Entitled “South Korea is an ally, not a dependent,” the commentary by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper drew an angry response from the public here, many of whom believe their country upholds its part in the alliance.
Nevertheless, there is the need for Seoul to go beyond discussions on technical issues and view the matter of sharing defense costs from a wider perspective that takes into account changing security conditions and the possibility of Trump making an impulsive decision.
If a deal reached between negotiators from the two countries falls short of his expectations, Trump might opt to cut the number of USFK troops by up to 6,000, which would not require congressional approval.
Any significant concession from Seoul needs to be matched with a change to last year’s agreement to renew the SMA on an annual basis, which former USFK commander Vincent Brooks noted last week would “cause structural instability” as it always takes more than a year when it comes to local employment and the construction of military facilities.
As he suggested, the deal needs to be renewed every three or every five years.