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Trump’s demands at NATO summit stir Seoul

July 13,2018
Concern is growing in Seoul that the United States might pressure South Korea to sharply increase its share of the cost for stationing American troops here after U.S. President Donald Trump called on other NATO countries to double their defense spending during talks in Brussels on Wednesday.

Seoul is currently in negotiations over a multi-year, cost-sharing agreement with Washington for stationing U.S. troops in South Korea and is scheduled to hold the latest round of talks next week.

Trump, at the NATO summit, urged other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to increase their defense spending from 2 percent of gross domestic product to 4 percent.

“The United States is paying far too much, and other countries are not paying enough,” Trump told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a breakfast meeting on Wednesday, echoing his America First sentiment. “And it’s disproportionate and not fair to the taxpayers of the United States, and we’re going to make it fair.”

On Twitter on Thursday, Trump called on Germany and “other rich NATO” nations to “pay more toward their protection from Russia.”

South Korea and the United States are set to hold their fifth round of talks for the 10th Special Measures Agreement (SMA) in Seattle next Wednesday and Thursday, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Thursday.

The SMA, a five-year deal under the Status of Forces Agreement, dictates what Korea will contribute to the non-personnel costs associated with keeping U.S. troops in the country. Since 1991, the two countries have conducted nine rounds of negotiations to decide what Korea’s financial contribution should be, and the current SMA is set to expire on Dec. 31.

The first round of talks to renew the agreement happened in March in Honolulu. Subsequent meetings took place in Jeju in April, Washington in May and Seoul in June.

The talks are occurring as the United States is negotiating with North Korea on its nuclear arsenal. Hours after his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on June 12, Trump abruptly announced in a news conference that the United States would stop its “war games” with South Korea because they are “provocative” toward North Korea and “tremendously expensive,” linking them to the cost-sharing deal.

“South Korea contributes, but not 100 percent,” he said in Singapore, “which is certainly a subject that we have to talk to them about also. And that has to do with the military expense and also the trade. So we’re doing that.”

Seoul paid around 960 billion won ($851 million) this year under the current SMA, but sources here indicate that Washington might demand a much higher amount in the renewed deal. The United States has also been calling for South Korea to pay for the deployment of U.S. strategic assets, including bombers, to South Korea should such deployments resume.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that based on a new Pentagon analysis, the Freedom Guardian exercise originally scheduled for August would have cost $14 million, less than the cost of one new fighter jet. The cost, the report added, would have been a fraction of the U.S. military’s annual budget of $700 billion, which increased 15.5 percent between this fiscal year and last year.

Noh Kyu-duk, a spokesman for the South’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, brushed off concerns about Trump’s remarks at the NATO summit and the impact they might have on Seoul’s SMA negotiations with Washington.

“Korea and the United States are going into defense cost-sharing discussions based on mutual trust and with a shared understanding of the importance of our alliance,” Noh said at a regular news briefing on Thursday. “There is no change in our government’s position that we will continue to shoulder a fair share of the cost at a reasonable level.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]