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Seoul prepares to negotiate cost of keeping U.S. troops

Nov 10,2017
The Moon Jae-in administration is preparing to negotiate its cost-sharing agreement with the United States for stationing American troops in Korea, government officials said Thursday.

According to the sources, Chang Won-sam, a veteran diplomat currently serving as Korea’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, was selected as the chief negotiator for the upcoming talks, slated to begin next year. The government will officially appoint Chang next week, and the rest of the negotiation team will be recruited by the end of this month, one of the sources said.

This will follow up with the latest agreement between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump on sharing the cost of the U.S. Forces Korea. On Tuesday in Seoul, Moon said he and Trump agreed to pursue “defense cost-sharing at an adequate and reasonable level.”

Since 1991, the two countries have conducted routine negotiations to decide Korea’s financial contribution to cover the expenses of keeping U.S. Forces Korea. The multi-year cost-sharing deal is known as a “Special Measures Agreement” under the Status of Forces Agreement, and it establishes Korea’s sharing of non-personnel stationing costs associated with the presence of U.S. forces in the country such as Korean labor, utilities, rent and construction.

The upcoming negotiation, which will start next year, will decide the amount of Korea’s contribution starting 2019. Under the last agreement, signed in January 2014, Korea provided 920 billion won ($823 million) in 2014. It also agreed to increase the funding level in the subsequent years by the rise in the Consumer Price Index. The current agreement, the ninth of its kind, will expire on Dec. 31, 2018.

Since the deal was first introduced in 1991, Korea’s burden-sharing has increased consistently. Seoul paid 107.3 billion won in 1991, but the amount grew to 950.7 billion won in 2017.

According to sources at the Foreign Ministry, Chang worked in the North American Bureau and Korean Embassy in the United States as junior diplomat to handle Korea-U.S. alliance issues. He, however, is known better as a China expert because he headed the Northeast Asia Bureau and was a Korean diplomatic minister to China. Sources said the Moon administration wanted to refresh Korea’s strategy in the negotiation by selecting Chang as the chief negotiator.

“The United States also needs to appoint a chief negotiator, so the talks will begin next year,” a source said.

Speculation is high that the negotiation will be contentious, because Trump has vowed to push U.S. allies to pay more. He pressured Moon in June during their first summit in Washington over the matter.

During Trump’s visit to Korea, Moon requested him to visit the newly built Camp Humphreys of the U.S. Forces Korea to stress that Korea has been paying a significant amount of the burden.

Camp Humphreys is one of the largest U.S. military installations overseas. It is the first time an American president visited the base, and Moon also made an unprecedented move by receiving him there before the summit at the Blue House. Korea paid 92 percent of the $10 billion in land and construction costs of the project.

During the joint media conference, Trump said he was impressed with the military base, but made clear he wants Korea to pay more. “I know what it costs, and it’s a lot of money,” he said. “We actually spent some of that money, and, as you know, that money was spent, for the most part, to protect South Korea, not to protect the United States. But some of that money was spent by us.”

Seoul and Washington also issued a joint press release to conclude the summit on Wednesday night and the burden-sharing issue was also addressed. “President Trump and President Moon acknowledged the desire for equitable cost sharing of United States military forces stationed in the Republic of Korea and noted the more than $9 billion contribution from the Republic of Korea to the Camp Humphreys expansion,” it said. “The two leaders intend to continue to strengthen the Alliance’s combined defense posture and capabilities, including through defense cost-sharing measures in the upcoming Special Measures Agreement discussions.”

It remains to be seen how the two countries will find an “equitable” deal. Korea pays around half of the overall cost of stationing U.S. troops here.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]