US demands 50% increase in S. Korea’s defense contribution

Posted on : 2020-05-08 18:22 KST Modified on : 2020-05-08 18:22 KST
Seoul willing to agree to 13% increase; chances of reaching agreement still remain low
A demonstrator outside the US Embassy in Seoul calls for an end to the Special Measures Agreement negotiations on May 6. (Yonhap News)
A demonstrator outside the US Embassy in Seoul calls for an end to the Special Measures Agreement negotiations on May 6. (Yonhap News)

The Trump administration in the US has asked South Korea to increase its yearly financial contribution to stationing US troops to US$1.3 billion (about 1.59 trillion won), the Hankyoreh has confirmed. That would be about 50% more than South Korea paid last year as part of its Special Measures Agreement (SMA) with the US. Since the US’ latest offer is still a considerable distance from the 13% increase proposed by Seoul, the chances of the two sides striking a deal on the 11th SMA remain low.

A senior official in the US government responded to a query by the South Korean press on May 7 by explaining that the US had asked Seoul to provide about US$1.3 billion in yearly funding. That’s about 50% more than the 1.04 trillion won (US$853.3 million) to which the two sides agreed in their 10th SMA last year.

This amount appears to represent the latest adjustment by US negotiators after President Trump rejected a tentative agreement reached by the two sides at the end of March to raise South Korea’s share by 13% from the previous year. A 13% increase would add 135 billion won (US$110.8 million) to the tab, resulting in a total contribution of about 1.17 trillion won (US$960.1 million). The amount proposed by the US is about 417 billion won (US$342.2 million) higher than that.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Korea and Japan Marc Knapper addressed the cost-sharing negotiations during a virtual seminar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on May 5. “We believe our side has been very flexible up until now. And we’re looking for some flexibility on the part of the Korean side too,” Knapper said.

“Our leaders have spoken recently, and we’ll continue to look for ways to sit down and talk,” Knapper said. He didn’t elaborate on the details of the negotiations, noting that the US always prefers keeping the negotiations behind closed doors.

But the fact that a senior American official has mentioned the US$1.3 billion figure to the press suggests that the US wants to stir up public opinion in South Korea and gain momentum in the negotiations. The US is basically suggesting that, since it has lowered its original offer of US$5 billion all the way down to US$1.3 billion, South Korea ought to be open-minded as well.

Even so, it seems very unlikely that South Korea will accept the US’ offer in its current form. Seoul is holding firmly to its stance that a 13% increase is the most it can give. “The government’s position remains unchanged. The amount that the US has mentioned is unreachable. From our point of view, it’s completely impractical,” said an official with South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The two sides will probably find it quite difficult to bridge the gap dividing them.

South Korea and the US long ago missed the deadline for negotiations on the 11th SMA, at the end of last year. As a result, a portion of the South Koreans employed by US Forces Korea have been on unpaid leave since Apr. 1.

By Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent, and Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

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