Moon administration emphasizes transparency in negotiations over South Korean defense costs

Posted on : 2018-02-22 16:46 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Trump likely to press for major increases in South Korea’s contributions to the alliance
South Korean and US negotiators meet at the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Seoul in Dec. 2013 to discuss terms of the 9th Special Measure Agreement (SMA) for defense sharing costs. (by Kim Bong-gyu
South Korean and US negotiators meet at the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Seoul in Dec. 2013 to discuss terms of the 9th Special Measure Agreement (SMA) for defense sharing costs. (by Kim Bong-gyu

The South Korean government appears to have begun full-scale preparations for upcoming negotiations with the US on the two sides’ shares of defense costs. As part of its preparations, Seoul has released results from an examination of issues in past negotiations. With recent predictions that the Donald Trump administration will press heavily for an increased contribution from South Korea, the tenth round of negotiations is likely to be a major challenge for the Moon Jae-in administration when it begins in March.

Commenting on the 9th Special Measure Agreement (SMA) in 2014 on the two sides’ shares of defense costs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported on Feb. 21 that an independent task force investigation showed the [Park Geun-hye] administration at the time to have “invited accusations of a behind-the-scenes agreement” by failing to report exceptional regulations allowing Seoul to increase its cash support to the US.

“It is apparent that while there was an agreement on the issue of exceptional cash support at the time the agreement was concluded, it was not reported during the National Assembly ratification process,” a senior ministry official said.

“From a third party’s perspective, it could be seen as raising suspicions that there was a behind-the-scenes agreement,” the official added.

At a hearing of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee the same day, Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha acknowledged the report’s findings and said the administration would “prepare carefully for the tenth round of negotiations so that this kind of issue does not arise again.”

At the same time, Kang remained quiet on the question of whether current South Korean ambassador to the United Kingdom Hwang Joon-kook, who served as senior representative for the ninth round of negotiations under the Park administration, would face a reprimand.

“The Ministry is currently considering what measures to take in light of the review findings,” she said.

Central to the “secret agreement” controversy is the matter of support funds for the building of a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) to be used for US military wiretapping and monitoring. Since their eighth defense cost-sharing agreement, South Korea and the US have agreed to full cash support for 88% of military construction costs other than inspection fees (which account for 12% of all construction expenses). But during the ninth round of negotiations, the two sides included a separate exception in the implementation arrangement stipulating that exceptional cash support could be provided upon agreement by the two sides according to military needs in the end of a shortfall in available funds.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the content of an exchange of notes during the eighth round of negotiations was spelled out following a decision at a meeting of security-related Cabinet ministers from both sides during the ninth round and developed into an implementation arrangement initialed by the two sides’ deputy representatives. After the ninth round of negotiations concluded in Jan. 2014, the administration submitted the agreement text and exchange of notes to the National Assembly for ratification, but did not provide a report on the implementation arrangement, which was then under discussion.

The US had asked that the discussions remain undisclosed until a final agreement was reached on the draft arrangement. Based on the task force investigation findings, the administration plans to adopt a more transparent approach to the tenth round of cost-sharing negotiations when they begin in March.

Trump renews accusations that Seoul isn’t paying its fair share

In addition to its trade pressures with steel tariffs, the US has also been applying heavy pressure on Seoul in terms of defense costs. Trump, who has hinted at an increase in defense contributions from US allies since his 2016 candidacy, revisited his “security piggybacking” accusations against South Korea at a Feb. 13 talk on the issue of fair trade.

“We defend Japan. We defend South Korea. They pay us a fraction of what it costs,” he said at the time.

The South Korean government is reportedly working on measures to address the possibility of the US attempting to include THAAD battery costs as part of South Korea’s share of defense expenses. In Feb. 2017, Trump made reference to charging South Korea for the “billion-dollar [around 1.13 trillion won] system.”

Appearing before the National Assembly National Defense Committee the day before, Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo acknowledged the possibility the US military could include THAAD costs as part of South Korea’s defense contribution.

By Kim Ji-eun, staff reporter

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