Late last month, some local media outlets reported that Seoul and Washington had reached a tentative agreement to renew a bilateral deal on how to split the cost of stationing 28,500 US troops here.
Quoting an unnamed official at South Korea’s presidential office, the reports said a final deal could be announced as early as April 1.
At the time, there was speculation that negotiations between the two sides had gained momentum after President Moon Jae-in and his US counterpart, Donald Trump, held phone talks March 24 on cooperation to fight the novel coronavirus.
During the talks, Trump mentioned his country’s need for South Korean-made medical equipment to respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19 there.
In the previous seven rounds of negotiations on how to revise the cost-sharing accord, known as the Special Measures Agreement, the allies failed to bridge their differences.
Washington initially called for a fivefold increase in South Korea’s payment to around $5 billion but later revised that figure downward to one between $3 billion and $4 billion.
Seoul proposed contributing about 10 percent more than it did last year. Under the 2019 SMA, which expired in December, Seoul was required to pay $870 million, up 8.2 percent from the previous year.
After the Moon-Trump talks, the US came closer to South Korea’s proposal, the local media reports said, adding that the two sides appeared to have agreed to revise the SMA on the basis of multiple years instead of amending it annually.
The prospects of an early conclusion to the negotiations have been dampened by US officials’ insistence that discussions should continue, in order to ensure an “equitable and mutually beneficial deal.”
Washington’s reaction raised speculation that Trump had vetoed a draft deal worked out by negotiators from the two sides, one that fell far short of his expectations.
A report said Friday that Trump had rejected Seoul’s offer to raise its contribution by at least 13 percent after being briefed on the draft deal by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
Esper made a phone call earlier last week to South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, in which he pressed Seoul to agree to a much larger contribution, according to the report.
The official at Cheong Wa Dae who struck an upbeat note seems to have spoken too soon. He should have known that negotiators might reach an agreement, but it is Trump’s view that matters in the end.
Seoul is now under pressure to outdo its latest offer after being rebuffed by Trump.
US officials suggest it may be hard to reach an agreement in the coming months, let alone the coming weeks. The report quoted an unidentified US official as saying there was concern that the standoff could last until the US presidential election in November.
The cost-sharing talks, which began in September, should not be allowed to drift for so long.
Since April 1, USFK has placed nearly half of its 8,600 South Korean employees on unpaid leave for an indefinite time, saying it has run out of funds to pay them.
It marks the first time that local workers have been furloughed since the allies established a framework for sharing the defense burden more than three decades ago.
The furlough could risk disrupting not only USFK operations and readiness, but also the allies’ combined military posture at a time when North Korea continues to engage in provocative acts.
Seoul has said it will take measures to support the livelihoods of local employees forced to go on unpaid leave.
Now it needs to be more flexible about increasing its share of the costs for the upkeep of USFK, and to depart from its focus on technical issues such as additional areas to be covered by the SMA.
Seoul remains adamant on maintaining the framework of the deal, which limits its financial contribution to wages for local employees, the construction of military facilities and other logistics.
Washington is said to be urging Seoul to pay for the cost of the rotational deployment of an infantry brigadier from the US mainland to South Korea, but to have withdrawn earlier demands that Seoul pay for the operation of strategic assets.
South Korea may have to consider accepting the measured extension of the scope covered by the SMA.
Instead of holding firm on sticking points, it could ask that the cost-sharing deal be renewed for multiple years at a time, hopefully at least five years. What is also needed is to revise the SMA to ensure that Seoul has the authority to pay local employees working for USFK, and to determine salary levels -- similar to the arrangements in place in Germany and Japan. This would prevent any recurrence of their livelihoods being impacted by deadlocked talks.