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USFK talks may go higher-level

Deadlock in dialogue means negotiations may involve presidents
Jan 12,2019
As Seoul and Washington are currently deadlocked in negotiations to renew their bilateral defense cost-sharing agreement, the next level of talks will likely happen at a higher level.

“An 11th round of [the current] talks likely won’t be scheduled,” a high-level Korean government official told reporters Thursday. “Instead, it may be negotiated at a higher level.”

On the possibility of the deal on sharing the cost of stationing of U.S. troops in Korea then being negotiated between Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump, the official said, “all possibilities are open.”

Since last March, Seoul and Washington have been negotiating the renewal of the bilateral Special Measures Agreement (SMA), a multiyear cost-sharing deal under the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, to maintain the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

Chang Won-sam has led the Korean delegation for the 10th SMA, while the U.S. delegation has been led by Timothy Betts, acting deputy assistant secretary for plans, programs and operations at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

The tenth round of talks took place mid-December, but the two sides failed to narrow their differences before the current deal expired on Dec. 31. As the two sides have been unable to resolve their differences, diplomatic sources have indicated that the issue now needs to be solved by the two leaders.

The government official, however, said that “various channels of negotiations for the cost-sharing deal are being considered,” including between ambassadors, the Blue House National Security Office and White House National Security Council, as well as between South Korea’s foreign minister and U.S. secretary of state.

The government official pointed out that over the past 10 rounds of meetings between Seoul and Washington - which took place in various cities in the two countries - the two sides have already made their positions clear.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the Trump administration wants Korea to pay 150 percent of the current defense cost-sharing deal, or about $1.2 billion annually. The JoongAng Ilbo later reported December that this came at the order of President Trump. Washington also has been demanding that the new deal last just one year instead of the five-year term set for the previous ninth SMA, which went into effect in 2014.

Under the current deal, Seoul pays around 960 billion won ($861.4 million) annually, about half the cost of stationing around 28,500 U.S. troops in Korea. Seoul is opposed to such a drastic increase, which will likely later be objected to in the National Assembly, and pointed out negotiating a deal every year is also impractical. But Trump has constantly demanded that U.S. allies pay more in defense costs. “We don’t want to be subsidizing rich countries at the disadvantage to us,” the U.S. president said in recent video conference.

The JoongAng Ilbo reported last month that the Trump administration’s demand for $1.2 billion annually came after he heard that Seoul was paying $600 million out of a total yearly cost of $3.5 billion. The figures are questionable in their own right.

Korea has also covered most of the costs of relocating U.S. Forces Korea from its headquarters in Yongsan District, central Seoul, to their new Pyeongtaek base in Camp Humphreys, Gyeonggi.

The Pyeongtaek garrison is the largest American military base overseas. It is approximately 5.5 times the size of the Yeouido in western Seoul, and has a diameter of 18.5 kilometers (11.5 miles).

The relocation to Pyeongtaek cost some 16 trillion won by 2010 standards, but taking in consideration inflation and other factors, the real amount exceeds this. Korea shouldered over 8.9 trillion won of the cost, or more than half the amount, while the United States planned to cover around 7.1 trillion won. Furthermore, Korea provides the USFK with free land, personnel for the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (Katusa) and also has purchased a considerable amount of U.S. arms.

Vincent Brooks, then the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, said last June, as the Pyeongtaek headquarters opened, that the base cost nearly $10.8 billion to build over 10 years and Seoul’s investment “was over 90 percent of the cost.”

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