U.S. Senate lauds Seoul for good contributions

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U.S. Senate lauds Seoul for good contributions

The U.S. Senate on Saturday lauded South Korea for its significant cost-sharing contributions to American military presence, saying Seoul’s spending of 2.5 percent of its GDP toward defense represented the highest among all American allies worldwide.

This ostensible praise - coming at a time when Seoul and Washington are locked in fierce negotiations over cost-sharing for next year’s Special Measures Agreement (SMA) - was contained in the Senate’s latest version of next year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a bill currently under Congressional review to determine the U.S. military budget for 2020.

The Senate also acknowledged Korea’s other financial contributions to strengthening the allies’ mutual defense, like its shouldering of the construction of Camp Humphreys, the U.S. Forces Korea’s new base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi.

SMA negotiations for 2020 and beyond should ensure mutual benefits and respect in recognition of South Korea’s contributions, the Senate said.

The bill also prohibits the reduction of U.S. military forces in South Korea below its current number of 28,500 to deter the continued threat posed by North Korea’s conventional forces and weapons of mass destruction.

The Senate in addition stressed its support for diplomatic efforts to achieve the North’s “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” but acknowledged that a “significant removal” of U.S. troops from South Korea was nonnegotiable until then.

Different versions of the NDAA were passed by the House of Representatives in July and the Senate in August, and the two bodies of Congress are currently in talks to reconcile the differences between the two versions before sending a final draft to President Donald Trump for his approval.

Yet the Republican-dominated Senate’s version of the bill appeared to depart significantly from the Trump administration’s position on the military alliance with South Korea - namely in that Seoul should shoulder a much larger cost to maintain the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea for its defense.

Korea and the United States kicked off negotiations for the 11th SMA in September, but Washington’s reported demand for $4.7 billion from Seoul - a fivefold increase from its current contribution - led to a breakdown of talks in Seoul last month.

On Sunday, the U.S. State Department said it hoped for a “fair and equitable” settlement in the fourth round of talks scheduled to take place in Washington from Tuesday to Wednesday.

So far, however, there has been little indication that either side will budge on the issue.

According to sources familiar with last month’s failed negotiations, Seoul reportedly insisted that it cannot accept a hike of more than a single percentage digit, saying even the 8.2 percent increase it agreed to with the 2019 SMA deal was far higher than the increases in previous years, which were around 5 percent.

Washington’s negotiators, however, said the approximately 500 percent hike takes into account the financial burden entailed with the added deployment of U.S. strategic assets around the Korean Peninsula over the last year as well as the cost of combined military exercises between the allies.

With controversy raging in Seoul over the demand ? which inevitably stoked anti-American sentiment among the public and leftist activists ? South Korean lawmakers visited Washington last week to discuss the issue with their U.S. counterparts.

Some U.S. lawmakers, like Sen. Cory Gardner, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, agreed that a resolution on a rational level was needed to maintain a mutually beneficial alliance, according to the Korean legislators.

It is unclear, however, whether such concerns are shared by Trump, who has frequently questioned U.S. military commitments to traditional allies across the globe due to the burden placed on American finances.

On Thursday, NATO announced it would slash the United States’ contribution to the alliance from 22 percent to 16 percent, in an apparent symbolic gesture to appease Trump ahead of a NATO summit in London this week.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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