SMA envoy likely to be from Finance Ministry

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SMA envoy likely to be from Finance Ministry

Korea and the United States are expected to launch negotiations on renewing their bilateral defense cost-sharing agreement soon, and Seoul is eying a former senior official from the Ministry of Economy and Finance as its chief negotiator.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been ramping up pressure on Seoul to pay more for the upkeep of American troops in Korea, ahead of negotiations between the two countries for their next bilateral Special Measures Agreement (SMA) set to begin as early as later this month.

According to multiple foreign affairs and defense sources familiar with the situation on Thursday, the review process to pick Seoul’s chief negotiator for the 11th SMA talks is nearly complete.

And unlike previous rounds of SMA talks, when negotiators were selected from the Foreign Affairs Ministry or National Defense Ministry, this time around, a former senior official from the Finance Ministry is the top candidate to helm Seoul’s negotiating team.

Trump again cranked up pressure on allies to up their contribution to the cost of defense and said Wednesday that the United States spends “a lot of money” to help countries including Korea.

Trump’s remarks are in line with Washington’s forecast that it will demand a steep increase in Seoul’s share in the cost of stationing U.S. troops in South Korea, with as much as $5 billion being floated ahead of the return to talks.

“We are doing a lot of allies very big favors by even being over there,” Trump told reporters in Washington. “We’re spending a lot of money to help Japan. We’re spending a lot of money to help South Korea, the Philippines.”

But he added that “in many cases, these people don’t do so much for us, but we are helping a lot of people throughout the world that have never appreciated it.”

Under the current one-year bilateral defense cost-sharing deal, Seoul agreed to pay around 1.04 trillion won this year, which amounted to some $920 million at the time of the signing in March. This was 8.2 percent more than what it spent last year for the stationing of 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea and around half the total cost.

While Seoul’s top negotiator for the 11th SMA negotiations will be announced by the Foreign Ministry, the decision ultimately rests upon the Blue House.

Enlisting a top negotiator from the Finance Ministry for the first time for the defense cost-sharing agreement talks could indicate that Seoul is bracing for a tough struggle with Washington.

According to a diplomatic source, “The burden-sharing issue is a very sensitive and heavy matter because it has elements which could cause strife between Korea and the United States, which is why the Blue House always takes part in the overall process of selecting the defense cost-sharing top negotiators.”

The Korean government also plans to include officials from various agencies — on its task force to prepare for the defense cost-sharing negotiations.

There is a possibility that negotiations this time around could also involve a different calculation method than before. Korea’s contribution currently covers the cost of Korean personnel, logistics and construction.

However, Washington could demand Seoul also cover the cost of deployment of strategic assets, joint military exercises and even expenses for its initiative to defend the Strait of Hormuz.

However, the defense burden-sharing issue is also related to the Korea-U.S. alliance and security issues as well.

Seoul last month decided to terminate its bilateral intelligence-sharing pact, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia), with Tokyo in response to Japan’s export restrictions on Korea.

Washington has been expressing disappointment over this move, especially as it has pushed for trilateral security cooperation with its two closest allies in the region.

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