Seoul and Washington to kick off SMA talks

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Seoul and Washington to kick off SMA talks

Seoul and Washington will begin the first round of negotiations for the renewal of a cost-sharing agreement for American troops in Korea on Wednesday in Honolulu, Hawaii, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Monday.

Korea’s delegation to the three-day talks on the 10th Special Measures Agreement (SMA) will be headed by its top negotiator, Chang Won-sam, while Timothy Betts, acting deputy assistant secretary for plans, programs and operations at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, will lead the U.S. side. Both delegations will include defense officials.

The SMA, a multi-year cost-sharing deal under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), establishes what Korea will contribute to the non-personnel costs associated with keeping U.S. troops in the country.

Since 1991, the two countries have conducted routine negotiations to decide what Korea’s financial contribution should be, and the current five-year agreement, the ninth of its kind, is set to expire on Dec. 31.

Chang, a career diplomat said to have strong experience in economy and trade, was appointed as head delegate to the Korea-U.S. SMA negotiations last November. He previously served as ambassador to Sri Lanka and a director general for Northeast Asian Affairs.

Betts, who joined the Department of State in 1984, previously served as U.S. program director of the bilateral office of program management in the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a deputy chief of mission in Budapest, Hungary, and director of Iraq Political Military Affairs in the State Department.

Negotiations for the latest burden-sharing deal, set to come into force in 2019, come at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated that he may demand Korea to pay a greater contribution.

Seoul currently pays about half of the cost of the stationing of some 28,500 U.S. troops on the peninsula, and its contribution has consistently increased over the years and reached over 950 billion won ($878 million) currently compared to some 150 billion won in 1991.

In a joint press conference with President Moon Jae-in after their summit meeting at the White House in June last year, Trump said that as a part of U.S. commitment to always defend itself and its allies, “We are working together to ensure fair burden-sharing in support of the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Burden sharing is a very important factor. A factor that is becoming more and more prevalent, certainly in this administration.”

Moon, in a joint press conference with Trump in Seoul last November, said they agreed in their summit “to continue the strengthening of the combined defense postures and capabilities of the bilateral alliance by pursuing defense cost-sharing at an adequate and reasonable level.”

Korean Minister of National Defense Song Young-moo told the National Assembly last month that there is a possibility that Washington may ask Seoul to cover the cost of keeping the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system in Korea from the SMA budget.

The Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday, “The two delegations will work toward sealing an agreement that will contribute to strengthening the Korea-U.S. alliance and our joint defense posture, and, in this process, our government plans to negotiate to bring about reasonable results that can be accepted by our people.”

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