Money isn’t everythingDifferences over the sharing of costs for the U.S. forces in South Korea (USFK) has prolonged negotiations between Seoul and Washington over their bilateral Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which dictates terms under the Status of Forces Agreement on U.S. military operations in the country. U.S. President Donald Trump reiterated his hard-line stance on defense burden-sharing among allies. With the negotiations over the SMA, which expires by the end of 2018, carried over to 2019, the Trump administration could demand a cutback in the USFK, rocking the 70-year alliance.
Military burden-sharing has long been a sticky point between Seoul and Washington. The issue has come up in every annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) since the mid 1990s. An SCM session even broke off due to a clash over a mere $5 million in budgeting. Since then, the defense ministry has surrendered the cost-sharing negotiations to the foreign ministry. The foreign ministry has a special envoy responsible for the negotiation.
The budget is mostly spent to maintain the USFK. Washington pays for the operations of the USFK, but the two governments equally share the cost going into defense of South Korea. Washington now wants to discuss cost-sharing every year. In a speech to troops in Iraq on Wednesday, Trump said, “America shouldn’t be doing the fighting for every nation on earth, not being reimbursed in many cases at all. If they want us to do the fighting, they also have to pay a price.” He recently ordered a pullout of troops from Syria. He can make a similar move with the USFK if Seoul does not increase the share it pays.
North Korea has been using the stalemate in dialogue to continue with nuclear weapons development and has not made any convincing actions towards denuclearization. Experts believe North Korea will possess 100 nuclear warheads within the next two years, half of what the British and Chinese possess. South Korea entirely relies on the United States for protection against North Korea’s nuclear threat. Although we would like to think that North Korea wouldn’t use nuclear weapons against South Korea, the threat remains real.
We cannot know whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could suddenly change his strategy. We have endured the erratic ways of Pyongyang for decades. We must be attentive so that North Korea does not repeat its threat to turn South Korea into sea of fire. Our security alliance with the United States must stay intact no matter what: Seoul must not try to save money. The economy is meaningless if security falls apart. Seoul must try to solve the cost-sharing negotiations with wisdom to ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula.
JoongAng Sunday, Dec. 29-30, Page 34