Saturday, 23 February, 2019

South Korea, US sign cost-sharing deal for American troops

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha right and Timothy Betts acting Deputy Assistant Secretary and Senior Advisor for Security Negotiations and Agreements in the U.S. Department of State stand for the media before their meeting at Foreign Mini South Korea signs deal to pay more for US troops
Melinda Barton | 12 February, 2019, 06:01

It's unclear whether Seoul will negotiate a longer deal for next year, or whether they will up their contribution to pay for the USA military presence again.

A senior South Korean ruling party legislator said last month that negotiations were deadlocked after the United States made a "sudden, unacceptable" demand that Seoul pay more than 1.4 trillion won per year. In those, the US had asked South Korea to pay the costs of operating strategic assets, but Seoul said those do not fall under the original scope of the allies cost-sharing agreements, which are meant mainly to pay for the salaries of South Koreans working at USA military bases in the country and costs related to facility construction and logistics. But the two sides also agreed to a one-year agreement instead of the usual five-year timeframe, so negotiators will have to return to the table soon.

"The United States government realises that South Korea does a lot for our alliance and for peace and stability in this region", said Betts.

But US President Donald Trump has repeatedly complained about the expense of keeping American forces on the peninsula, with Washington reportedly asking Seoul to double its contribution toward costs.

The new arrangement, pending ratification by the South Korean parliament in April, would increase Seoul's share of the cost by a little over 8 percent to $924 million in USA dollars.

"It has been a very long process, but ultimately a very successful process", South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said at a meeting before another official from the foreign ministry initialled the agreement.

About 70 per cent of South Korea's contribution covers the salaries of some 8,700 South Korean employees who provide administrative, technical and other services to the U.S. military. The SMA will take effect after National Assembly ratifies it around April. "We are very pleased that our consultations resulted in an agreement, and I think that will deepen our cooperation in the alliance".

After the June meeting, Mr Trump had announced a halt to joint military exercises with South Korea, saying they were expensive and paid for mostly by the US.

The disagreement had raised the prospect that Trump could decide to withdraw at least some troops from South Korea, as he has in other countries like Syria. During his election campaign, Trump suggested he could pull back troops from South Korea and Japan unless they took on greater a share of the financial burdens of supporting US soldiers deployed there. Trump will travel to Hanoi, Vietnam for the summit on February 27-28.

The big U.S. military presence in South Korea is a symbol of the countries' alliance, forged in blood during the war, but also a source of long-running anti-American sentiments. The ministry said the US assured South Korea that it is committed to the alliance and has no plans to adjust the number of its troops in South Korea.

Late past year, the USA military warned Korean workers on its bases they might be put on leave from mid-April if no deal was agreed.

Betts, deputy assistant secretary of state for plans, programs and operations, had 10 rounds of negotiations with Chang Won-sam, a veteran South Korean diplomat, throughout previous year.