Agreement on U.S. military costs gets blowback

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Agreement on U.S. military costs gets blowback

With a steep rise in Korea’s share of the budget for keeping U.S. troops in Korea, questions arose from opposition lawmakers and the public as to how the budget is going to be allocated and where exactly the money will go.

Korea’s share in keeping U.S. troops stationed here rose some 5.8 percent compared to last year under a new five-year agreement concluded over the weekend in talks led by chief Korean negotiator Hwang Joon-kook and his U.S. counterpart, Eric G. John.

But negotiations are not over, as the two sides still have to determine the fine print and the allocation of the budget for U.S. troops stationed here - a process that can take some 45 days.

The National Assembly also has to pass the agreement and the Blue House has the final say.

Unlike in the past, Korea now gets to review how U.S. Forces Korea will use the budget, a move which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says will increase transparency in the process.

“We will conduct a review and evaluation of the related documents of the basic yearly itemization submitted by the U.S.,” a government official said requesting anonymity. “It will be determined with a similar ratio as last year’s.”

The major breakdown is expected to be 40 percent for wages of soldiers, 40 percent for maintenance and upgrading of military facilities, and 20 percent for logistical support.

The previous five-year Special Measure Agreement (SMA) expired at the end of last year for the maintaining of 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in Korea. In 2014, Seoul will pay 920 billion won ($869 million).

Under the new plan, the cost to Korea will grow annually by up to 4 percent in any year through 2018.

Some critics pointed out that the total budget for U.S. troops in Japan has decreased in contrast to Korea’s.

But in the case of Japan, the cost of each item is determined before coming up with the total budget, whereas in Korea, the total budget is first determined and from there the details and allocations of the budget is decided upon. A defense official said that in the case of the latter method, “the amount of the budget can increase, thus our government picked a policy of determining the total budget first” to restrict the budget.

“And once the total budget is determined,” he said, “the itemized distribution can be negotiated.”

Ahn Hong-joon, a ruling Saenuri Party lawmaker and chairman of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, said the Korean side “did very well in negotiations.”

He added, “Of all the five-year SMA agreement negotiations to date, this is the third smallest rate of increase, and it is meaningful that transparency has been encouraged through the National Assembly report.” He urged that the agreement be passed speedily in the Assembly next month.

Opposition Democratic Party Representative Shim Jae-kwon, also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the negotiations were “lacking.”

He said there was a lack of transparency on whether “the SMA agreement budget is being used for the moving of the base of the troops. Unless such problems are addressed, it will be difficult to ratify the agreement.”

U.S. military headquarters is slated to move from Seoul to Pyeongtaek in 2016.

Oh Byung-yoon, floor leader of the minor opposition Unified Progressive Party, went further and said the “humiliating agreement has to be renegotiated” as it favored the United States.

The 920 billion won budget for the stationing of U.S. troops here this year is estimated to cost around 1,533 won per person each month.

A government official pointed out, “Of the defense cost of shared troops, some 90 percent is eventually returned to the local economy. In last year’s case, 331.8 billion of 334 billion won was used for Korean military personnel [hired by U.S. Forces Korea], leading to the creation of 8,500 jobs.”

Likewise, he added, some 283.3 billion won was spent on building barracks, sewage facilities and other construction work last year.

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