Balancing alliance and sovereignty

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Balancing alliance and sovereignty


Hwang Joon-kook
The author, a former special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, is a visiting professor at Hallym University.

A new series of South Korea-U.S. defense cost-sharing negotiations has begun. It’s the 11th set of discussions after they were first held in 1991. Last year, Seoul agreed to pay roughly 1.39 trillion won ($1.1 billion) for 2019. Furthermore, this time U.S. President Donald Trump demands an unprecedentedly high paycheck for stationing U.S. troops in Korea.

Unfortunately, the negotiations, which were meant to create an environment for stably stationing U.S. troops here, are actually offering some room for radical anti-U.S. groups to raise their voices. I fear anti-U.S. sentiment may spread further amid insecure domestic and international circumstances. Most Koreans wish for the South Korea-U.S. alliance — the best asset for our security and economy — to remain firm. 

Let me first clear up some misunderstandings about the negotiation. As a former chief negotiator for talks, I negotiated with the United States for one year from 2013. At the time, our negotiation circled around three main categories: the labor costs of Korean workers at U.S. military facilities; fees for logistics support; and construction fees for U.S. military installations. Among the money we pay, more than 90 percent returns to Korean workers and companies.

The special agreement for defense cost sharing between the two allies based on Article V of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is simply called the “Special Measures Agreement (SMA)” in the United States. Here, “defense cost” is not mentioned at all in the English title. “Defense cost sharing” was mistakenly included in the Korean title. As a result, many Koreans have misunderstood the negotiations to be about shouldering overall defense costs.

Japan and Germany hold similar defense negotiations with the United States, but their talks are technical and held between lower, working-level officials — and without the media frenzy like in Korea. The SMA is limited to “facilities and areas” used by American troops here, and Korea’s payment is only about one-fiftieth of what it pays for its total defense costs at 50 trillion won a year. 

Earlier this year, European countries of NATO gave in to pressure from the Trump White House and agreed to pay an additional 110 trillion won annually. But this is no reference point for South Korea because NATO members negotiated their total defense costs. The South Korea-U.S. SMA negotiations have been exaggerated as propaganda in anti-U.S. campaigns, and some Koreans overanalyze them as having a direct impact on North Korean denuclearization talks and the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK).

The Trump administration seems to suggest a whole different kind of SMA negotiation as South Korea has grown and the United States has changed. The American public, like Trump, no longer wants to volunteer as the world’s police. The country wishes to maintain its global leadership position even while downsizing its financial burdens. That’s why in recent SMA talks, the United States has started to mention topics that are unrelated to the “facilities and areas,” pressing South Korea to pay for its temporary deployment of strategic assets — such as aircraft carriers and bombers — around the Korean Peninsula, which require heavy operational costs. The Korean government must clearly explain to the press and the National Assembly how this year’s SMA negotiation is different from the past, and find a new negotiation strategy.

Apart from the SMA negotiation team, it might help Seoul to establish a separate “operational support” team to improve its negotiation skills and to better explain to the public. If the United States ever goes too far with its demands as a simple extension of previous negotiations, the Korean public might find it difficult to understand, helping fuel anti-American sentiment among the people.


U.S. President Donald Trump applauds U.S. Forces in Osan Air Base on Jun. 30. [YONHAP]

After first clearing up the misunderstanding about the SMA negotiation, Korea is required to respond to the new demands from the United States like a mature sovereign state. For instance, the deployment of U.S. strategic assets around the peninsula and the combined military exercises between the two countries serve both countries’ security interests. So it is right to examine a way to reasonably split the costs between the two sides. In the process, the Moon Jae-in administration needs to consider the following points. 

First, both sides must discuss whether it is right to split costs for such a new category as the deployment of U.S. strategic assets, set a cost-sharing principle, and then find a way to carry out the agreed cost-sharing plan for that new category step-by-step over a time span of several years. No matter how reasonable a U.S. argument is, it is difficult to allocate a huge budget on something new all at once. So South Korea can pay whatever it needs to pay for the original categories in the SMA, yet for any new category, the two countries should decide on their ultimate share, and then gradually work their way up towards that goal by increasing Seoul’s share. 

South Korea is completely different from NATO members, who have been criticized by the United States for free-riding on its security and failing for years to keep their promise of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Seoul has no reason to accept any sudden, unilateral demands from the United States. 

Second, unlike Europe, South Korea has paid heavy costs for security administration to serve the interests of U.S. forces here, such as operating the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (Katusa) and constructing the U.S. base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi. Koreans paid more than 10 trillion won in taxes to build the U.S. military base in Pyeongtaek. Ten trillion won is nearly 95 percent of the entire construction fee. And not only is it America’s largest overseas base, it is located very close to China. Seoul must actively inform the United States of these facts and let the Trump administration give a detailed report to Congress.

Third, if the United States really tries to push Korea to partly pay for the salaries of USFK, as some local media reports suggest, then Seoul must separate any talks related to that issue from the SMA negotiations because the demand goes against the SOFA, which stipulates that the U.S. government entirely pays for the maintenance of its troops except for the costs pertaining to their facilities and areas. Moreover, it may lead to a fresh set of talks on negotiating the reduction of American troops. 

If the size of the USFK ever really becomes a topic for negotiation based on how much Korea pays in the SMA, it would be surprising news, something that was unimaginable a couple of years ago and yet could turn into reality. In a mid-to-long-term perspective, there is a high chance the United States would integrate some of its overseas military bases and reduce its tripwire forces permanently stationed abroad due to changes in military technology and politics. 

This also has to do with the progress on the transfer of wartime operational control (Opcon) from the United States to South Korea. The start of talks to cut down U.S. troops stationed in Korea does not necessarily signify the weakening of the alliance, but the two countries must have strategic discussions on a whole different level because negotiations to reduce U.S. forces in Korea are not something to be discussed on the peripheral of the SMA negotiations.

In the end, South Korea must carefully consider everything during SMA negotiations while striking a balance between the alliance and Korea’s pride. As much as the U.S. government values its taxpayers’ money, the Korean government must show it cares about theirs as well. That way, South Korea can be respected as an ally.

Our negotiation team must not feel intimidated over the thought that U.S. troops may leave the country if they mess up. Withdrawal is strategically different from reduction. It is difficult for the United States to abandon South Korea like it did to the Kurds — particularly at a time when it is in a hegemony competition with China and when North Korea has its nuclear weapons aimed at the U.S. mainland. There is even a lesser possibility that a withdrawal of U.S. forces will be seriously considered after some real progress is made in North Korean denuclearization.

The location and size of the U.S. base in Pyeongtaek are also worthy to point out. Many people feel jittery about mercurial Trump, but any American president would find it difficult to make a decision that would help China snatch an absolute victory. Seoul must act reasonably — and confidently — in the SMA negotiations with the goal of strengthening and modernizing the alliance with the United States.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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