Seoul, Tokyo’s growth warrants bigger bill: U.S.

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Seoul, Tokyo’s growth warrants bigger bill: U.S.

The top U.S. official for East Asia on Monday said Korea and Japan’s “exponential” growth in recent decades warranted them bearing a larger burden in regional defense.

David Stilwell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, appeared to raise the expectations for the two U.S. allies in East Asia in his remarks delivered at a security seminar in Washington by suggesting Seoul and Tokyo should not only pay a larger cost for their own security but also that of the larger Indo-Pacific region as a whole.

While assuring both allies that Washington was committed to their defense, Stilwell noted the two countries’ enhanced capabilities arising from their growth provided opportunities for them to cooperate more closely with U.S. efforts to defend the region.

“As the security background changes and as our partners have become wealthier and more capable of taking care of their own security, as well as our shared security interests,” Korea and Japan should be expected to “take care of that, that they invest in that as a show of alignment, as a show of support and demonstration of our concerns about the changes that are taking place in the region,” Stilwell said. These comments stood at odds with those from Korea’s top cost-sharing negotiator, Jeong Eun-bo, who arrived in Washington on Monday for a fourth round of talks with U.S. officials on next year’s Special Measures Agreement (SMA), the 11th of its kind.

The last round of negotiations, which took place in Seoul late last month, ended abruptly as the U.S. delegation stormed out after the Korean side rejected the reported demand that it pay around $4.7 billion for its defense, which includes the upkeep of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed on its soil.

Jeong told reporters at Washington’s Dulles International Airport that while he hoped for a “win-win solution” in the SMA negotiations through patience and a shared set of beliefs in the importance of the alliance, Korea would maintain that cost-sharing should only be discussed within the existing SMA framework.

“We have, in our own way, come prepared with several alternative [proposals] concerning this and that,” Jeong said.

The negotiator’s insistence that no changes be made to the current SMA framework can be interpreted as Seoul’s rejection of U.S. demands that it shoulder additional costs related to the deployment of strategic assets and joint military drills in addition to the expenses Korea already covers under the SMA.

Under the first to 10th SMA and the Status of Forces Agreement, Korea only paid for certain portions of the upkeep of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), including salaries for Korean civilians hired by the USFK and construction and auxiliary costs for military facilities supporting the USFK. Last year, as part of the 10th SMA agreement, the United States included a new “operational support” cost in its bill for Seoul, and followed it up in the latest negotiations by asking that Korea pay maintenance costs to keep up the “readiness” of allied forces.

While Korean officials have denied that the United States demanded it pay for the deployment of U.S. strategic assets in and around the peninsula, like bombers or aircraft carriers, Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha last week acknowledged there is a “very large gap” between the two countries’ positions as to the extent of Seoul’s financial contribution to the alliance.

According to accounting records from the U.S. Department of Defense, the rise in upkeep costs for the USFK over the last five years - from around $2.36 billion in 2014 to around $4.46 billion this year - was owed to added operation and maintenance costs stemming from more frequent deployments of U.S. strategic assets, including aircraft carriers and bombers, to the peninsula in the wake of North Korea’s numerous nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

An official from the U.S. State Department told the JoongAng Ilbo that the SMA was a mechanism used to share the burden of U.S. forces’ upkeep between Korea and the United States, suggesting that all portions of USFK upkeep could be subject to a new agreement reached within the year to replace the outgoing 10th SMA.

Jeong, however, appeared to leave open the possibility that the two sides may not arrive at a settlement within the year as a result of their disagreement. While the year-end deadline remained the “principle” underlying Korea’s position, “negotiations by nature can produce results later than expected, so it is difficult for me to predict when exactly [a deal] will come out,” he said.

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