Korea-U.S. cost-sharing talks kick off this week

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Korea-U.S. cost-sharing talks kick off this week

Korea and the United States will kick off negotiations on renewing their bilateral defense cost-sharing agreement Tuesday and Wednesday in Seoul, announced the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Monday.

Seoul and Washington’s current Special Measures Agreement (SMA) under the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, which determines Korea’s contributions to the upkeep of U.S. troops here, expires on Dec. 31.

The Korean Foreign Ministry said that Seoul’s team for the first round of talks will be helmed by Chang Won-sam, who served as Seoul’s chief negotiator for the previous SMA, and officials from the Ministry of National Defense and Ministry of Economy and Finance.

Chang, who was named earlier this month Korean consul general in New York, signed a one-year defense cost-sharing deal with his U.S. counterpart Timothy Betts on Feb. 10, and will head Korea’s negotiation team until a successor is named.

Washington’s team for the 11th SMA will include chief negotiator James DeHart, a career diplomat from the U.S. State Department, and officials from related agencies such as the Pentagon.

DeHart previously served as charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Norway and as an acting deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

Amid consistent hounding by U.S. President Donald Trump for allies to pay more for defense, Washington has been expected to demand a steep increase in Seoul’s share this time around, with as much as $5 billion having been floated ahead of the return to talks.

Since 1991, the two countries have conducted routine negotiations to decide what Korea’s financial contribution to the non-personnel costs associated with keeping U.S. troops in the country will be. Korea and the United States usually conduct multiple rounds of talks in cities alternating between the two countries before reaching a deal, at times passing the deadline.

The two sides usually signed multi-year pacts. However, after months of wrangling for the 10th SMA, the current one-year deal, Seoul agreed to pay around 1.04 trillion won, which amounted to some $920 million at the time of implementation in March. This was 8.2 percent more than what it spent last year, or some 960 billion won, for the stationing of 28,500 U.S. troops in Korea.

Seoul’s contribution currently covers the cost of Korean personnel, logistics and construction. Washington could possibly demand Seoul pay for additional expenses including the cost of deployment of strategic assets and joint exercises. Korea, in a departure from its previous picks, has been eying a finance expert to become the chief negotiator for the 11th SMA, which will come into effect in 2020, to take over from Chang.

Jeong Eun-bo, a former vice chairman of the Financial Services Commission and former chairman of the Securities and Futures Commission, has been floated as a top contender for the position. If he is appointed, this would be the first time the top Korean SMA negotiator is picked from outside the Foreign Ministry or Defense Ministry. Jeong, formerly of the Finance Ministry, earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Seoul National University and a master’s degree in business and a doctorate in economics at Ohio State University.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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