Thaad item in Trump’s new budget alarms Seoul

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Thaad item in Trump’s new budget alarms Seoul

Korean officials Friday denied that they have discussed with Washington construction fees for a base in Korea housing the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system, contradicting a 2021 U.S. Army budget proposal suggesting that the multi-million dollar budget will be covered by Korea.

The denials came in response to local media reports earlier yesterday saying that the U.S. Department of Army’s proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year showed $49 million would be used for construction on the Thaad site in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang.

In the proposed budget, the U.S. Army described the article as “Korea funded construction,” implying that Seoul would pay. Of the total amount, $37 million was set aside for site security, lighting and weapons storage, while about $7 million was earmarked for electricity, sewers and road works.

The budget also stated that Washington would allocate $1 billion for enhancing Thaad systems around the world, stoking fears here that the United States might pressure Seoul to partially cover some of those fees as well.

The U.S. budget proposal raised red flags in Korea because the allies agreed in 2017 - when parts for the antimissile system arrived in Seongju amid a major backlash from local residents - that Seoul would provide the land for housing Thaad, while Washington covered other costs of deployment.

The proposal came at a sensitive time for the allies as they’ve been holding discussions on the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), a bilateral cost-sharing deal for the upkeep of U.S. forces on Korean soil.

Local media Friday raised the possibility that the United States’ Donald Trump administration may try to tie the Thaad issue with the SMA talks to push Seoul to eventually pay more.

Korean government officials denied Thaad costs being brought up between the two countries lately, giving the impression Seoul was caught off guard by the defense proposal.

Asked whether the Korean military was informed by the United States about Seoul sponsoring Thaad construction fees, a local military official said the issue wasn’t brought up, and that any details regarding the matter should be negotiated upon finishing an ongoing environmental survey of the Thaad site.

An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, likewise, said the issue wasn’t raised between the two countries, let alone in the SMA discussions.

Asked whether Washington might press Seoul to pay for its costs to advance the Thaad system, a local military official said it was up to the Pentagon to cover the fees and that Korea wasn’t responsible for financially pitching in.

For months, the allies have been at loggerheads over the Trump administration’s reported demands that Seoul pay about $5 billion toward the upkeep of 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the South, an almost fivefold increase from last year’s share of $930 million.

The SMA has three main categories for South Korea’s financial contributions, which are costs for Korean employees serving in U.S. bases, logistical support and the construction of some military facilities.

The U.S. defense proposal triggered suspicions in Seoul that Washington may try to squeeze Thaad costs into the last category.

BY LEE KEUN-PYUNG, LEE YU-JUNG [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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