1-year deal on troop cost-sharing
United States agrees to preliminary plan ahead of North Korean summit
TOKYO >> The United States and South Korea signed a “preliminary” deal to share the cost of the U.S. troop presence in the country Sunday, removing an irritant between the allies ahead of President Donald Trump’s summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
But the deal was a stopgap agreement, covering only one year, instead of the usual five-year-term, after long-drawn-out negotiations caused by Trump’s determination to get Seoul to pay substantially more.
The U.S. had initially demanded a doubling of the South Korean contribution, but in the end had to settle for a rise of 8.2 percent for the first year, equivalent to the rise in Seoul’s total defense budget this year. South Korea has agreed to pay around $920 million, up from around the $853,000 a year it paid the U.S. from 2014 to 2018.
The United States and South Korea expressed satisfaction with the deal, known as the Special Measures Agreement or SMA.
“The United States government realizes that Korea does a lot for our alliance and for peace and stability in this region and the SMA is only a small part of that,” said Timothy Betts, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for plans, programs and operations, who led the negotiations.
“But it’s an important part and we are pleased that our consultations resulted in an agreement that I think will strengthen transparency and strengthen and deepen our cooperation in the alliance.”
The signing was labeled “preliminary” since the deal still needs to be ratified by South Korea’s legislature, but Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha expressed optimism that it would be passed.
“I think the response so far has been quite positive,” she told Betts. “Of course there are some points of criticism as well and we will have to deal with them, but I think at this point we were able to close the gap on the total amount.”
The two sides held 10 rounds of negotiations last year, failing to reach agreement before the previous deal expired at the end of 2018.
They agreed to set up a working group to handle cost-sharing negotiations in the future, adding that if no new agreement is reached by the end of this year, “to prevent the absence of an agreement, the two sides can extend the previous agreement upon mutual consent.”
Opposition conservative lawmaker Won Yoo-chul said the two sides had reached a “wise” and reasonable compromise.
“It is fortunate that the deal was reached before the upcoming Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam, so that the troops card is off the table,” he said. “Defense cost-sharing is an issue between us two allies, not a bargaining chip with North Korea.”
But Won, a member of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, warned that the short-term nature of the deal could cause friction.
“With renegotiation every year, the two sides will go through a standoff each time, which will look bad for the alliance,” he said. “The alliance between two countries should not be approached from an economic perspective alone.”
Ruling party lawmaker Song Young-gil said he expected the United States to push harder in the next round of negotiations, so that the U.S. leader could declare a “win” ahead of elections in 2020.