Allies return to negotiating table on troop upkeep costs

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Allies return to negotiating table on troop upkeep costs


Officials from Seoul and Washington kick off the fourth round of Special Measures Agreement negotiations on Tuesday in Seoul. The talks focus on the renewal of a cost-sharing agreement for maintaining U.S. troops in South Korea. [YONHAP]

Seoul and Washington kicked off another round of negotiations on Tuesday to discuss the renewal of a cost-sharing agreement for maintaining American troops in South Korea amid a period of detente on the peninsula.

The fourth session of the 10th Special Measures Agreement (SMA) discussions, scheduled to run through today, began at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seocho District, southern Seoul.

The SMA, a multi-year cost-sharing deal under the Status of Forces Agreement, establishes what Seoul must contribute to the non-personnel costs associated with keeping U.S. troops in the country. Since 1991, the allies have conducted negotiations to decide Seoul’s contribution.

Under the current five-year agreement set to expire on Dec. 31, Seoul has agreed to pay about 960 billion won ($859 million) in annual costs, 42 percent of the entire budget shared by both countries.

But the Donald Trump administration wants Seoul to pay more - around 50 percent of the total cost.

In past rounds of negotiations this year, officials from the Korean Foreign Ministry said Washington pressed Seoul to share the cost of deploying U.S. strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula, which is currently covered by Washington in full. That includes nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines dispatched to waters off South Korea on rotation, usually during joint military exercises, to contain provocations from North Korea.

Refusing to pay, Seoul has argued that the SMA’s original purpose is to maintain U.S. troops in the South and does not cover strategic assets temporarily deployed by the United States.

This time, Seoul will go in with some fresh negotiating power since the two allies recently agreed to indefinitely suspend some joint military exercises as long as the United States sees progress in denuclearization talks with the North.

Among the drills that were canceled this year was the Freedom Guardian, a two-week computer-simulated exercise designed to enhance the allies’ readiness against North Korean aggression. U.S. strategic assets are usually deployed in the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises every spring, meaning their appearance in the South will drastically go down if the North remains on good terms with the United States at least until early next year.

Trump has pressed U.S. allies around the world to pay more for defense costs and repeatedly said that Washington will renegotiate terms so that his country will be treated fairly.

After his summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un on June 12, Trump cited the “tremendously expensive” cost of joint military exercises with South Korea when he said he would end the two countries’ “war games.”

South Korea, he said, wasn’t contributing 100 percent of the “incredible” amount of money spent on them.

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