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Second round of defense cost talks takes place in Hawaii

Oct 29,2019
Seoul and Washington held a second round of talks on renewing a defense cost-sharing agreement set to expire at the end of the year last week but have a tough road ahead to reach a deal acceptable to both sides.

The talks took place Wednesday and Thursday in Honolulu to renew the bilateral Special Measures Agreement (SMA) on sharing the cost of the upkeep of U.S. troops in Korea.

“Through the talks, the two sides were able to confirm their positions and shared a mutual understanding on certain areas,” said a senior official involved in the SMA negotiations Monday.

“We plan through close consultations to strengthen the Korea-U.S. alliance and our combined defense posture.”

However, the official said because the talks are ongoing, further details of what was discussed could not be revealed.

Korea’s new top negotiator for the 11th SMA, Jeong Eun-bo, a finance expert, held his first talks with James DeHart, senior adviser for security negotiations and agreements in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, starting off with an ice-breaking session and went on to discuss more specific details.

The Korean Foreign Ministry in a short statement Friday stressed that the two sides are working toward “coming up with a mutually acceptable deal” and that the third round of talks will be held next month in Korea.

The two sides would have to also decide on the duration of the 11th SMA as the current 10th SMA is a one-year deal set to expire on Dec. 31. Previous agreements have been multi-year deals.

Washington is seen to be pressuring Seoul to pay nearly $5 billion a year, as much as fivefold the current amount, and there is not a lot of time to negotiate as the two sides aim to seal a deal by the end of the year.

Under the 10th SMA, Seoul agreed to pay nearly 1.04 trillion won ($888.6 million) this year, which was 8.2 percent more than what Korea spent the previous year for the stationing of 28,500 U.S. troops.

The U.S. State Department has been demanding a “fair and equitable” outcome to the negotiations.

U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris said in an interview with the Dong-A Ilbo earlier this month that Korea pays “only one-fifth” of the total cost of defense and should be paying a larger share as the world’s 12th largest economy.

“There can be no free riders to our shared security,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, on the same days as the SMA talks in Honolulu.

“Regardless of geographic location, size, or population, all must do their part to deter war and defend the alliance. We are only as strong as the investments we are willing to make towards our common defense.”

While Esper was addressing NATO countries, he stressed every ally “must contribute its fair share to ensure our mutual security and uphold the international rules-based order.”

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation pointed out that Washington demanding a significant increase in Seoul’s share in stationing U.S. troops in Korea would backfire and reduce its budget for purchases of American weapons as the funds would come out of its Defense Ministry’s Development and Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), reported the Voice of America (VOA) Thursday.

“So fundamentally, what the U.S. is asking South Korea to do is to reduce the South Korean purchases of American weapons systems,” Bennett was quoted as saying by VOA, adding U.S. arms manufacturers will “actually lose purchases that have been planned if there’s a significant increase in the burden-sharing.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]


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