Korea won’t budge from 13% SMA increase

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Korea won’t budge from 13% SMA increase

Negotiations for the defense cost-sharing agreement with the United States remain in a sticky position as Seoul is not likely to offer a contribution higher than the 13 percent increase that has recently been rejected by U.S. President Donald Trump, said a Korean lawmaker last week.

“Our government considers 13 percent to be the best offer,” said Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun, a three-term lawmaker and chair of the National Assembly foreign affairs committee on Wednesday. “President Trump said this is not enough, but in a situation where we have already proposed our best offer, there is no need for us to immediately try to head back to the negotiation table.”

Yoon spoke to reporters after a closed-door meeting of the committee Wednesday in which the Foreign Ministry briefed the lawmakers on this matter as Seoul and Washington have struggled to renew their bilateral Special Measures Agreement (SMA) on the upkeep of some 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in Korea. The previous deal, expired on Dec. 31 last year.

Yoon added that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper had both agreed with their Korean counterparts, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, on a 13 percent increase in Seoul’s contributions compared to the previous accord.

He added, “President Trump’s veto is the U.S. situation, and the cabinet members of the two countries approved a 13 percent increase, so Korea doesn’t have to offer an amount higher than 13 percent.” Thus, Yoon said, “there is no other alternative” at this point.

Since April 1, over 4,000 Korean personnel working for the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) have been unprecedentedly furloughed for an indefinite period of time because of the lack of a new SMA.

Seoul and Washington have been working on trying to reach an agreement ahead of the furlough of the Korean workers for the USFK, and their chief negotiators reached a tentative agreement, but Trump ultimately turned down the proposal.

U.S. President Trump confirmed Monday in a press conference that he recently “rejected” Seoul’s defense cost-sharing offer and again called on Korea to pay a higher contribution for the U.S. military’s “tremendous service.” He said, “We are asking them to pay a big percentage,” describing that it is not fair “to defend another nation” that is “8,500 miles away.”

In the previous 10th SMA, signed in February 2019, Seoul agreed to pay 1.0389 trillion won, which amounted to some $920 million at the time, and around 8.2 percent more than what it spent the previous year. A 13 percent offer would mean that Seoul’s contribution would be around 1.1739 trillion won. The Trump administration initially demanded some $5 billion annually, a nearly fivefold increase in Korea’s contribution.

“There has been no counterproposal so far by the United States,” said Yoon, noting, “it is likely to ultimately be decided by the top negotiators,” referring to the presidents coming to a deal on the defense cost-sharing.

Since the tentative agreement between the chief negotiators and the ministers and secretaries has become void, it will now likely have to be decided by the White House and Blue House, between President Moon Jae-in and Trump.

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

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