Let’s make a deal

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Let’s make a deal

It is unfortunate that South Korea and the United States failed to strike a deal on their defense cost-sharing before a second U.S.-North Korea summit. The two sides determine their share of the cost of stationing U.S. troops in South Korea (USFK) every five years.

Negotiations to fix their shares carry great significance because when and how they wrap up the deal could prompt a decision to pull out the USFK. Engrossed in his America First promises, U.S. President Donald Trump has called for a withdrawal of the troops after raising the issue of South Korea’s “free ride on security.” If South Korea’s cost sharing falls short of his expectations, Trump may be tempted to pull out — or cut back on — the troops. If he is not satisfied with our contribution, the possibility of Trump impulsively accepting North Korea’s demand for a scaling back of the USFK at an upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un grows sharply.

The USFK can hardly stay on the Korean Peninsula permanently. Nevertheless, any withdrawal should be carried out at an appropriate time. If Trump promises a withdrawal or a scaling back to Kim in exchange for his pledge to dismantle the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that threaten the U.S. mainland, that is the worst-case scenario. To prevent such a disaster, the Moon Jae-in administration must finish the negotiations quickly.

Given the huge amount of money involved, the negotiations are tough. While Seoul does not want its share to exceed 1 trillion won ($883.8 million), Washington wants Seoul to pay 1.4 trillion won, about 1.5 times the original amount of 960 billion won. That gap seems to be very hard to narrow.

Considering the importance of the Korea-U.S. alliance, however, both sides must work to finish the negotiations. They need to respect their counterpart’s position. For instance, South Korea allows the USFK to use their bases for free. If you add tax benefits and costs for maintaining Korean soldiers helping the USFK, that’s an enormous advantage. South Korea also paid the 10-trillion-won bill for construction of a massive U.S. base in Pyeongtaek.

South Korea should also not underestimate the benefits of having the USFK here. Given its 46.7-trillion-won defense budget for 2019, its upper limit of 1 trillion won takes up only 2.2 percent of the sum. Given the USFK’s great contribution to our security, that is not big money. Therefore, both sides must finish the negotiation swiftly based on mutual respect and trust. It is the time for public diplomacy.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 23, Page 30
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