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U.S. intensifies pressure on Seoul to pay more

Nov 18,2019
Washington raised pressure on Seoul to pay more for American troops in Korea over the weekend, stressing that the United States was reviewing cost-sharing agreements over time and updating them to ensure both sides are treated “fairly.”

“The relationship [between the United States and Korea] changes as the security dynamic in the region changes,” a senior official on East Asian and Pacific affairs in the U.S. State Department said last Friday in Washington during a special briefing following the official’s return from an Asian trip.

“It’s linked to North Korea and others [sic] security risks and threats. We review these agreements over time and we update them in order to ensure that both sides are being treated this workload, this balance is being treated and addressed fairly,” the official continued, according to a seemingly garbled transcript released on the State Department’s website.

The official, whose name was withheld, refused to publicly specify Washington’s demand from Seoul in the ongoing cost-sharing talks, saying it would be “exceptionally stupid” to weigh in on the actual numbers and process, but underscored that the sharing of the costs should be “balanced.”

The comment was made just days before Seoul and Washington were set to kick off a third round of cost-sharing negotiations for the next Special Measures Agreement (SMA). A U.S. delegation led by James DeHart, Washington’s chief negotiator for the SMA talks, was to meet with their Korean counterparts today and tomorrow in an undisclosed location in Seoul.

The first round of talks was held on Sept. 24 and 25, and the second on Oct. 23 and 24.

Jitters have been running high in Korea that Washington would ask Seoul to pay as much as $5 billion in the next SMA deal, which amounts to about 5.8 trillion won. Under this year’s 10th SMA, which expires in December, Seoul agreed to pay 1.04 trillion won ($888.6 million), which was about 8.2 percent more than what Korea spent in the 9th SMA.

Seoul is apparently not the only country being pressured by the Donald Trump administration to pay more.

According to the Japan Times on Saturday, John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, told Tokyo officials during a visit to Japan in July that Japan should pay about five times as much as it’s currently paying for the upkeep of 50,000 American troops in the country.

About 28,500 American troops are stationed in Korea.

Tokyo was said to have rejected the request.

Citing unidentified Japanese government sources, the Japan Times said Bolton, at the time, told Japanese officials that the United States would also ask Korea for a fivefold increase in payments. The cost-sharing agreement between Washington and Tokyo is set to expire at the end of March 2021, and the next round of discussions are expected to kick off next spring, the newspaper noted.

Representative Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York, urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in a letter last Friday to “reconsider” their request for Seoul to pay five times more than what it’s paying now, saying their “aggressive negotiation tactics” imply they underappreciate the value of the Korea-U.S. alliance.

“To request a 500% increase within one year from Seoul shows no regard for the mutual benefit of this critical alliance, and puts U.S. national security and economic interests in the region in jeopardy,” Meng said in her letter, which she disclosed on Twitter. “The security relationship between Seoul and Washington is perhaps one of the most non-controversial and mutually beneficial relationships in which the U.S. participates.”

Meng urged the Trump administration to reconsider and “engage in good faith negotiations” with Seoul.

BY JUNG HYO-SIK [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]