Korea urged to pay more for upkeep of U.S. troops

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Korea urged to pay more for upkeep of U.S. troops

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper have made an emphatic call for Korea to pay more for the upkeep of 28,500 American troops stationed in the country.

They made the appeal in a rare joint commentary in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, after the two sides ended their sixth round of talks in Washington to negotiate the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), the cost-sharing deal for the stationing of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

At the SMA talks on Tuesday and Wednesday, the negotiators failed to reconcile differences, with Seoul striving to maintain the decades-old SMA framework and Washington demanding a change in the accord to expand its coverage.

“These narrowly defined costs are only one part of the picture. America’s contributions to Korea’s defense in this highly technological age - including some advanced capabilities Seoul still needs to acquire - far exceed the cost of U.S. ‘boots on the ground’ and constitute a far larger burden for the American taxpayer than meets the eye,” they wrote in the commentary.

“The current special measures agreement captures only a portion of the cost of defending South Korea. The U.S. believes it should cover more. As we improve the burden-sharing arrangement, both sides will benefit,” they added.

The scope of the SMA was a major fault line in the negotiations as Seoul has remained firm that the basic framework of the agreement should remain intact to ensure the purpose of its payments - sharing the cost of stationing the USFK.

Currently, the SMA has three categories for Korea’s financial contributions: the partial costs for Korean employees in USFK installations, the construction of some military facilities and logistical support.

But Washington has demanded the SMA should cover a full range of costs associated with American troops’ role for the defense of Korea, including those related to their rotational deployments to the peninsula.

The two secretaries stressed that the vast majority of Korea’s payments for the USFK will benefit the local economy - a key rationale to ramp up pressure on Seoul to shoulder a greater share. They also made it clear that America’s presence on the peninsula has “enabled South Korea to develop a vibrant democracy and the world’s 12th largest economy.”

“More than 90 percent of South Korea’s cost-sharing contributions currently go right back into the local economy in the form of salaries for Korean nationals employed by U.S. Forces Korea, construction contracts, and other services purchased locally to sustain an American presence. It’s good for both nations,” they said.

Noting the “tough” SMA negotiations, the secretaries also said that Korea’s taking on a greater share of the load will ensure the alliance remains the “linchpin of peace and prosperity” on the Korean Peninsula, in Northeast Asia and across the world.

“The U.S. remains firmly committed to reaching a mutually beneficial and equitable agreement that will strengthen the alliance and combined defense far into the future,” they said.

The Pentagon reiterated Thursday that much of the costs shared between the two nations directly benefit the Korean economy.

“We’ve continued to push on this since [U.S.] President Trump came into office, and we continue to see it, whether it’s in the Middle East, whether it’s in Europe, whether it’s in Asia, that we expect our allies to pick up a little bit more of the burden,” U.S. Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said during a press briefing at the Pentagon. “One thing I’d point out with Korea is much of the monies that are part of that cost-sharing actually go back directly into the Korean economy in terms of goods and services procured there, the hiring of foreign service nationals who are able to work on the base.”

Under the previous SMA, which expired at the end of December, Seoul was required to pay some $870 million for Korean civilians hired by USFK, the construction of some military facilities and other forms of support.

Korea and the United States are not discussing the possible deployment of Korean troops to the Middle East in connection with their defense cost-sharing talks, a chief Seoul negotiator said Thursday.

Jeong Eun-bo, Korea’s ambassador to the defense cost-sharing negotiations with the United States, made the remark as he departed Washington following a sixth round of talks.

He was addressing speculation that the two sides are discussing a Korean troop deployment to the Strait of Hormuz, in support of U.S. security operations there, to partially offset Washington’s demands for a large increase in Seoul’s contributions to the cost of stationing 28,500 American troops on the Korean Peninsula.

“We are not talking about troop deployment to the Strait of Hormuz or anything outside the framework of the Special Measures Agreement,” Jeong told reporters at Washington’s Dulles International Airport. “We are not discussing anything other than those aspects related to our contribution to the alliance.”

Jeong elaborated that in order to receive a “fair evaluation” of its contribution to the alliance, Korea has been emphasizing its arms purchases from the United States.

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