S Korea resists US payment hike
SOUTH Korea is resisting a Trump administration demand for sharply higher payments to defray the cost of basing US forces in its territory, raising fears that US President Donald Trump might threaten a troop drawdown at a time of sensitive diplomacy on the Korean peninsula.
US negotiators have sought a 50% increase in Seoul’s annual payment, which last year was about $830million (R11.483 billion), or about half the estimated cost of hosting 28500 US troops, according to two US officials familiar with the discussions.
The US stance reflects Trump’s view that US allies have taken advantage of US military protection for decades – a view resented by many South Korean officials, who say they already pay more to the US than almost any other ally except Japan.
Talks that began last March on a five-year funding agreement were suspended after negotiators did not agree on new terms by the end of last year, when the last agreement expired.
South Korea, which initially called for adjusting annual payments only to account for inflation, is expected to make a counter-offer this month, but it is unlikely to satisfy the White House, US officials said.
“The Koreans want to keep the status quo,” said one US official. “But the president had made clear, not just to Korea but to other allies, that the status quo won’t do.”
The stand-off is straining the long-standing alliance as Trump plans a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to renew the US push for elimination of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, and South Korean President Moon Jae in is pursuing his own rapprochement with Kim.
South Korea is anxious about a potential withdrawal of US troops if an agreement can’t be reached, and umbrage over hardest bargaining from its closest ally since the Korean War, which ended 66 years ago.
“If it was reasonable, we’d go along,” said Song Young Gil, a member of the National Assembly. “But the Trumpian way of… accusing us of free riding – we can’t cave to that… Whether it’s Korean money or American money, it’s taxpayer funds.”
Song, who belongs to the same party as Moon and supports engagement with North Korea, said he believed that threats to remove US troops were a negotiating tactic and would not happen, given the US’s broader strategic interests in northeast Asia.
Trump’s ability to withdraw troops is limited. Congress last year passed a law barring the Pentagon from reducing troop levels in Korea below 22 000 unless the president certifies to Congress that doing so is in US interests.
Negotiators are considering various ideas to break the impasse, including having South Korea pay a portion of the US cost of joint military training exercises, or to help defray costs of deploying US bombers, warships, missile defence batteries and other military assets. Also, the cost of such exercises is tiny compared with what South Korea pays every year for hosting US troops.
South Korea is also funding more than 90% of a $10.8billion construction project that will allow US troops to move from bases near Seoul and the Demilitarised Zone along the border with North Korea to new installations farther south. Song said that such favourable terms ensured that Trump would not pull out in the end.
Many conservatives in South Korea, though, worry that the stalled talks are signs of a fraying relationship. US SECRETARY of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday an ongoing boycott of Qatar by four of America’s allies in the Middle East “has dragged on too long,” though he gave no sign of any coming breakthrough in the dispute.
Stopping off in the small, energy-rich nation as part of a Mideast tour, he said “great things” were happening between Qatar and the US.
Pompeo said he signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar regarding the expansion and renovation of al-Udeid Air Base, which hosts the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command and some 10 000 American troops.
Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began a boycott of Qatar in 2017, alleging Qatar funds extremist groups and had close ties to Iran.
Qatar has denied funding extremists, but Doha shares a massive offshore natural gas field with Tehran.
KASHMIRI villagers use cellphones to record the funeral of rebel commander Zeenatul Islam in Sugan village, outside Srinagar, in Indian controlled Kashmir, yesterday, where massive anti-India protests and clashes erupted, after a gunbattle between militants and government forces the night before. The clashes, in which at least 16 people were injured, erupted after government forces tried to stop mourners from attending the funeral of one of India’s most wanted rebels in the Himalayan region, who police say was killed in the gunbattle. Most Kashmiris support the rebel cause that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in street protests against Indian control. Nearly 70 000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian crackdown.