US and South Korea sign deal on shared defense costs
SEOUL — Washington and Seoul on Sunday signed an agreement on how to share the cost of the US military presence in South Korea, resolving a dispute between the allies before President Trump’s meeting this month with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader.
But the one-year deal only temporarily addresses an issue that has become particularly contentious under Trump, who has insisted that South Korea and other allies shoulder more of the cost of maintaining US bases on their soil.
Under the new deal, Seoul will contribute about $925 million this year to help cover the expense of stationing 28,500 US troops in South Korea. That is an 8.2 percent increase from last year, when South Korea paid roughly half the total cost.
The agreement, subject to parliamentary approval, was signed in Seoul on Sunday by the chief South Korean negotiator, Chang Won-sam, and his American counterpart, Timothy Betts.
During the negotiations, “the United States reconfirmed its commitment to defending South Korea and made it clear that it was not considering any change in the size of American military presence,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The statement also said Washington had withdrawn its earlier demand that South Korea provide “operational support,” helping to pay the costs of the US soldiers, aircraft carriers, and war planes used in joint military exercises with the South.
Unlike the previous five-year deal, which expired Dec. 31, the new agreement will cover this year only. The allies will have to resume negotiations within months over how to share next year’s costs, giving the United States a chance to press for a far bigger South Korean contribution.
Such talks have always been contentious, but particularly so in the last year.
Negotiations to replace the old agreement went past their December deadline, as South Korea resisted Washington’s demand that it raise its contribution by 50 percent.
The deadlock had raised fears that Trump might propose a withdrawal or reduction of US troops in South Korea as a bargaining chip during his second summit with Kim, which is set to take place Feb. 27-28 in Hanoi, Vietnam.
North Korea has long campaigned for the troops’ withdrawal, arguing that the US military threat had forced it to develop nuclear weapons. At the Vietnam meeting, Trump is hoping for concrete and verifiable progress toward denuclearizing North Korea.
The 8.2 percent increase falls far short of Trump’s demand, but it is a major concession for Seoul. When South Korea signed its last cost-sharing deal in 2014, it agreed to a 5.8 percent increase over 2013. Under that deal, South Korea’s contribution increased only 1 percent each year from 2015 to 2018, in keeping with domestic inflation rates.
South Korea had also wanted another multiyear deal, to avoid having to negotiate every year. Still, the new one-year deal helps alleviate, even if briefly, concern that Trump might put the future of troops in South Korea on the table in the talks with Kim.
Trump has often questioned the value of stationing US troops abroad, repeatedly demanding that South Korea and Japan pay more for the defense they provide.
In an interview aired on CBS News on Feb. 3, Trump again complained that keeping US troops in South Korea was “very expensive” but said he had no plans to bring them home.
“Maybe someday. I mean, who knows,” he said.
South Koreans are well aware of Trump’s unpredictability. Emerging from his first summit with Kim in Singapore in June, Trump announced that he would suspend military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, calling them “tremendously expensive” and “very provocative.”
North Korea has long objected to the drills, and many South Koreans were shocked that Trump would make such a significant concession in return for Kim’s vague promise to “work toward complete denuclearization.”
After the June meeting, Trump boasted that he had “largely solved” the North Korean nuclear crisis. But talks have since stalled over how to implement the Singapore agreement.
The US military command was established in 1957, when South Korea was a largely agrarian country. Not counted as part of South Korea’s contribution to the shared costs are large tracts of land that it supplies rent-free for the bases. South Korea has also taken on more than 90 percent of the $11 billion cost of expanding Camp Humphreys, south of Seoul, into the largest US military base outside the continental United States.