Trump turns down Seoul’s increase offer

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Trump turns down Seoul’s increase offer

U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly rejected Korea’s offer to raise its contribution by 13 percent in their bilateral defense cost-sharing deal, dashing Seoul’s hopes to seal a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) soon.

Trump was said to have made the decision to turn down an increase of at least 13 percent compared to the previous agreement last week after consultations with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, two U.S. officials told Reuters on Friday.

Esper and Pompeo reportedly argued that Seoul was paying for no more than a third of the costs most directly associated with the stationing of the U.S. forces in Korea, along with other American military and intelligence assets associated with its defense.

Again at an impasse, Washington and Seoul officials are currently unsure on when the 11th SMA will be sealed.

At the beginning this month, Blue House officials indicated that a tentative agreement had been reached and that the two countries were at the brink of sealing their new cost-sharing deal on the upkeep of some 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in Korea.

The matter was especially prioritized as over 4,000 Korean employees of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) were furloughed starting April 1 for an indefinite period of time because of the lack of a new accord after the previous 10th SMA expired at the end of last year.

Last week, Esper revealed on Twitter that he had called Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo on April 6 to discuss the importance of speedily sealing an “equitable” defense cost-sharing agreement. This conversation apparently was to press Seoul to pay a higher contribution as expected by Trump, putting negotiations back at square one.

One U.S. official was quoted by Reuters as being “disappointed” that a chance at a “mutually acceptable” deal fell through.

Thus, current and former U.S. officials say privately there appears to be little hope of clinching a new agreement in the coming days ahead of the April 15 general elections in Korea, or even months, according to the report.

Seoul officials have indicated that the tentative agreement put Korea’s contributions closer to its calls for an annual increase of 10 percent, compared to the Trump administration’s exorbitant initial demand of some $5 billion annually, a nearly fivefold increase in Korea’s contribution.

In the previous 10th SMA, signed in February 2019, Seoul agreed to pay around 1.04 trillion won, which amounted to some $920 million at the time and around 8.2 percent more than what it spent the previous year.

Jeong Eun-bo, Korea’s top negotiator for the 11th SMA, traveled to Los Angeles, obtaining travel waivers because of the coronavirus situation, to hold talks from March 17 to 19 with his U.S. State Department counterpart James DeHart in what could have been the final stages of negotiations which kicked off last September.

On March 31, Jeong made a press statement from his home in the midst of self-quarantining after his U.S. trip to state that the two sides were in their “final stages” of reaching a cost-sharing deal. He also expressed regret that Washington had previously turned down Seoul’s efforts to reach a separate deal to prevent the furlough of the Korean employees of the USFK.

Striking a new deal would have allowed for Seoul and Washington to focus attention on the global pandemic, underscore a steadfast bilateral alliance and assuage concerns that the current situation could undermine the American troops’ military readiness and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, it is now unclear even when the next round of talks will take place let alone when a deal will be struck.

“It is difficult to predict when a deal will be reached because we were moving along making speed but now are in a situation where we have faltered,” a senior Korean Foreign Ministry official told reporters Friday. “What is clear is that we did go to the final stages, and while we will need to go back to talks to see what happens, our [chief negotiator] Jeong and other channels continue to maintain contact [with the U.S. side].”

However, the official added that the next talks have yet to be set up.

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

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