Let’s stop being pushovers

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Let’s stop being pushovers

The “Washington School” diplomats in Korea share an aphorism: “If you are too picky, you could get hurt.” Diplomats are basically warning their juniors that being too fastidious in a negotiation with the United States may lead to problems in their careers. A veteran diplomat with ample experience in negotiations with the U.S. says, “Washington can very easily handle difficult Korean diplomats. They will casually comment on his English proficiency or attitude.” When the American side says, “He didn’t seem to understand English very well,” or “Isn’t he anti-American?” the Korean government will take care of it. So if you want to get promoted and succeed, it is wiser to keep things running smoothly rather than be uptight and inflexible.

Last week, Korea and the United States began negotiations to renew a military cost-sharing agreement in Washington D.C. The ambassadors for defense burden-sharing appointed by Seoul and Washington discussed the standards of cost sharing to be applied for five years from 2014. Korea shares the cost of stationing U.S. military forces on the peninsula. Theoretically, Korea should have the upper hand in negotiation. But that’s far from the reality.

Korea’s contribution increased from 107.3 billion won ($94.13 million) in 1991, when Korea began paying some of the costs of the United States Forces Korea (USFK), to 869.5 billion won this year. Seoul has paid a total of 12.124 trillion won to the United States until now. It is understandable that Korea pays a portion of the cost required to maintain U.S. forces in the country as a considerable part of national defense is dependent on the U.S. The problem is the method of calculating the contribution. The current negotiation is estimated by a rule of thumb. The United States unilaterally proposes the non-personnel stationing costs (NPSC), and Seoul and Washington negotiate the share of South Korea’s contribution.

The United States has never actually explained the details of NPSC. They offer a general breakdown such as wages for Korean personnel working in the U.S. military bases, military facility construction and logistical support cost, along with the total amount. It is never explained how they calculate such amounts. Korea now pays 40 to 45 percent of the total cost, but Washington wants to raise the share to 50 percent. The South Korean government is not willing to accept the concepts of NPSC and cost sharing. There is no way to verify a unilaterally proposed NPSC, and considering the indirect cost of maintaining the U.S. forces stationing in Korea, the actual contribution is far higher. Since the two sides have disagreements on the cost-sharing formula, the negotiation is not likely to go smoothly.

The USFK have not spent the budgets for military construction costs completely since 2002 and have been saving the remaining balance. Until last year, a total of 761.1 billion won had accumulated. When the excessive cost sharing became an issue, the United States diverted the money to the base relocation of the 2nd Infantry Division. They seem to think that they can use the money whenever they want once it’s in their pocket. After the construction project they had planned was canceled due to the relocation of the 2nd Infantry Division, the United States wanted to keep the money.

However, strictly speaking, that is a misuse of public money and a kind of misappropriation. It goes against the base relocation agreement, which says that the United States will pay for the relocation cost of the 2nd Infantry Division. But the government gave a tacit approval without letting citizens know about it. The National Assembly has been a rubber stamp, approving the cost sharing without thoroughly reviewing the details.

Perhaps it’s not very courteous to be so picky about money with a trusted ally. We may end up paying more by being excessively inquisitive or suffer some kind of negative impact on our broader national interests. Some argue that anti-Americans are trying to undermine the alliance by quibbling about dollars and cents. Nevertheless, we need to know how the taxpayers’ money is spent. If we continue to blindly share the cost of USFK, it will only fan distrust and antagonism against Washington, making the Korea-U.S. alliance unstable.

The Park Geun-hye administration emphasizes principle, trust and international standards. If so, we need to take the negotiations seriously. By establishing a standard for agreement, we need to be meticulous and show the outcome transparently. Room for controversy should be eliminated by stipulating that the budget diverted to the relocation of the 2nd Infantry Division originates from Korea. We must part with the old practice of offering whatever Washington asks.

When I asked, “Will you suffer a disadvantage in your career if Washington is not pleased with you?” Ambassador for Defense Burden-sharing Hwang Joon-kook, who represents Korea in the talks, responded, “Then the citizens would be pleased with me.” If he lacked English proficiency or had anti-American tendency, he wouldn’t have been appointed an ambassador in the first place. So let’s all wish Ambassador Hwang a proper negotiation.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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