‘US to ratchet up pressure in SMA talks’
The appointment of a new U.S. envoy for defense cost-sharing negotiations with Korea is seen as Washington’s attempt to add more pressure on Seoul to pay more for the cost of maintaining American troops here, according to government officials and diplomatic pundits, Tuesday.
Given that the U.S. presidential election is in the offing, the push to strike a deal is likely to be amplified in order for President Donald Trump to tout an “achievement” for his reelection campaign.
The U.S. State Department has named Donna Welton as chief negotiator for the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which determines Korea’s cost-sharing for the United States Forces Korea (USFK), to succeed Jim DeHart, who was appointed as the U.S. coordinator for the Arctic region last week. Welton recently served as assistant chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. As a diplomat, Welton has over 25 years of experience and has worked in countries including Finland and Indonesia and at the U.S. mission to the United Nations.
Her appointment came as the allies have remained far apart over the issue despite multiple rounds of negotiations dating back to last September due to Trump’s demand for a hefty increase. Washington wants $1.3 billion (1.55 trillion won) for 2020 — a nearly 50 percent increase from last year — but Seoul is maintaining its proposal of a 13 percent increase from the previous cost-sharing accord of $860 million. Due to the huge gap, Chung Eun-bo, Korea’s top SMA envoy, and DeHart tentatively agreed to a deal in April, but Trump vetoed the draft.
“The Welton appointment will not work in favor of Korea in the SMA negotiations,” a government source told The Korea Times.
“Given that we have been seeking to reach an agreement after the U.S. presidential election in November, the move is seen as the U.S. government’s determination to strike a deal before the vote, which means the U.S. will increase pressure on Korea to pay more for the USFK.”
Kim Yeoul-soo, chief of the Security Strategy Office at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs, echoed the government official’s view.
“Under the current situation, the appointment does not help Korea at all. I think the replacement of DeHart was because of Trump’s dissatisfaction with the negotiations,” Kim said.
“In that respect, it is not likely that a new chief negotiator will maintain a similar stance with DeHart and rather she will urge Korea to shoulder a bigger financial burden. Do you think that the new envoy will accept an increase of 13 percent, not up to $1.3 billion?”
Exceptionally, Welton will be in charge of defense cost-sharing talks with Japan as well, so Kim expects Trump to promote both deals with Korea and Japan on the campaign trail. The U.S. is demanding that Japan pay $8 billion per year, compared to $2.5 billion it has paid for this year — the deal expires next March.
However, Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said the appointment of a new representative may have little impact on the SMA talks.
“As Korea and the U.S. have already finished the details and whether to strike a deal depends on a decision from the two heads of state, the replacement will not affect the negotiations between Korea and the U.S.,” Park said.
“Rather the appointment is targeted at pressing Japan to pay more for the American presence there.”
Welton’s past career backs up Park’s speculation as she is known as an expert on Japan with a fluent command of Japanese. She previously served in Tokyo, Nagoya and Sapporo and also worked as a curator of Japanese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“As the negotiations with Japan are more complicated than those with Korea, she may have been appointed for these,” Park added.
In addition, the personnel shift also came as the U.S. is withdrawing 12,000 troops from Germany amid speculation that these withdrawals may extend to the USFK.
However, Park said that this would not be an easy decision for the U.S. to make as it is currently engaged in a diplomatic feud with China, and North the Korea nuclear issue still exists.