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Preliminary cost-sharing talks on troops begin

Aug 21,2019
Korean and U.S. negotiators held preliminary discussions Tuesday at an undisclosed location in Seoul before talks begin over a new cost sharing agreement for the deployment of U.S. troops in Korea.

While a Korean Foreign Ministry official insisted the meeting was not the beginning of the 11th Special Measures Agreement (SMA) negotiations but just preparatory talks on how to proceed, the two countries’ delegations, led by Korean Foreign Ministry representative Chang Won-sam and his U.S. counterpart Timothy Betts, were expected to break ground on U.S. President Trump’s reported demand to hike Seoul’s burden for the upkeep of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) to $5 billion from the current $858 million that Korea agreed to pay following a deal reached for this year’s costs in February.

Diplomatic sources say Washington may indeed hit Seoul with a bill of around $5 billion, but that it is also looking to broker a larger framework of burden sharing that would include costs not previously included, like land use fees for U.S. military bases on Korean soil.

This cost sharing proposal could also possibly include all expenses incurred by the United States in any defensive ventures involving Korea, like the deployment of weapons and troops in their combined military exercises or protecting the “freedom of navigation” in areas like the Hormuz Strait or the South China Sea, through which Korean vessels regularly cross.

That $5 billion, another diplomatic source said, accounts for a broad interpretation of all costs on a global scale borne by the United States to keep up its military alliance with Korea.

One source said that while Trump himself wants Seoul to pay up this money in the form of hard currency like it does with its current contribution, most in the U.S. administration are aware of just how unrealistic and risky such a proposal is, given that it could generate anti-American sentiment in Korea.

A more likely outcome could be an arrangement where a provision of military services from Korea - like a possible deployment of its warships to the Strait of Hormuz - could also be quantified as part of the burden sharing.

Another possibility is that Korea could charge rent on the land it currently leases to the United States for free to house the USFK, and then waive this fee as one of its contributions.

In the context of Trump’s recent boast that he found it “easier to get a billion dollars from South Korea than to get $114.13 from a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn,” one source in Washington said that the administration has already decided to hike the upkeep costs to at least $1 billion.

Under the current one-year bilateral defense cost-sharing deal, Seoul agreed to pay around 1.04 trillion won, which amounted to some $920 million at the time of the signing in March. This was 8.2 percent more than what it spent the previous year for the stationing of 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.

The SMA is a narrow deal under the larger Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that establishes what Korea will contribute to the non-personnel costs associated with keeping U.S. troops in the country, but not other auxiliary costs that go along with the process.

Since 1991, the two countries have conducted routine negotiations to decide what Korea’s financial contribution should be. The current agreement, the tenth of its kind, is set to expire at the end of this year.

The Korean government has said that if it adds all supplementary expenses, like the various forms of tax relief and free leases given to U.S. troops, it is actually paying close to 5 trillion won to keep up the alliance.

An attempt by the United States to overhaul the structure by including costs of tactical equipment deployment or joint military training into the burden it shares with Korea would inevitably entail a revision to SOFA altogether. Article V of this agreement stipulates that Korea furnish all land, or rights of usage to military facilities to U.S. troops without cost, while the United States in turn bears all other expenditures for its troops.

Chang and Betts, both veterans on the subject, may have glossed over the agenda for a new deal on Tuesday, but the hard work of undertaking the actual negotiations will be left up to new teams that both Seoul and Washington are expected to appoint in the coming weeks. More certain are the actual policymakers who will determine each side’s position in the talks, Blue House Deputy National Security Advisor Kim Hyun-chong and White House National Security Advisor John Bolton.

BY YOO JEE-HYE, LEE YU-JEONG AND SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]