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Seoul set for tough talks on defense costs

U.S. president says allies are not paying enough for troops
Sept 16,2019
U.S. President Donald Trump said U.S. allies aren’t paying “almost anything” for the defense offered by U.S. troops stationed in their countries, raising a red flag in South Korea as Seoul and Washington prepare to enter another round of negotiations on cost-sharing. Although Trump did not specifically mention South Korea or any other country in his latest remarks, he stressed that the allies were not helping out the United States in terms of maintenance.

“We have this great military, and we defend countries that are immensely wealthy, and they don’t help us out. They don’t pay us for almost anything,” Trump said Friday in Baltimore, Md., while addressing the House Republican Conference Member Retreat Dinner. “And we’re talking to those countries. They’re our friends, they’re our allies. Sometimes our allies treat us worse than anybody else,” he added. “But we can’t let that happen, and they don’t want to let that happen.”

The White House chief hinted at adding pressure on allies to pay more for the upkeep of U.S. troops.

“It just takes a little getting used to because nobody has ever asked them. ‘Look, we’re defending your country, you’re rich as can be. You got to help us out. You got to pay a little bit.’”

Trump has recently been ramping up pressure on South Korea to pay up, with the two countries expected to start talks for their next bilateral Special Measures Agreement (SMA) as early as late this month. Trump’s remarks are in line with Washington’s forecast that it will demand a steep increase in Seoul’s share in the cost of stationing U.S. troops here.

Under the current one-year bilateral defense cost-sharing deal, Seoul agreed to pay nearly 1.04 trillion won this year, which amounted to some $920 million at the time of the singing in March. This was 8.2 percent more than what Seoul spent last year for the stationing of 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. South Korea’s contribution currently covers mostly the cost of South Korean personnel, logistics and construction.

In the forthcoming rounds, some local government sources say Washington may demand Seoul to also cover the cost of the deployment of strategic assets, joint military exercises and even expenses for its initiative to defend the Strait of Hormuz.

Since 1991, the two countries have conducted routine negotiations to decide what Seoul’s financial contribution should be. The current agreement, the 10th of its kind, is set to expire at the end of this year.

With the bilateral talks for the 11th agreement set to begin soon, some local pundits believe the Trump administration may try to crank up pressure on Seoul to pay more by tying the issue to denuclearization talks.

North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui said last week that Pyongyang was willing to talk with Washington at the end of this month to resume stalled dialogue.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]