Funds test for US-South Korea alliance

By Cheng Xiaohe Source:Global Times Published: 2019/11/25 21:48:40

South Korea's diplomatic headache seemingly never goes away. As its clash with Japan shows no sign of a quick end, its dispute with the US over cost-sharing for US Forces Korea (USFK) has once again flared up, putting their alliance to a stress test. 

The military cost-sharing dispute between Washington and Seoul has been around for a while. When US President Donald Trump campaigned for the presidential election in 2016, he repeatedly bashed Seoul for not spending enough on the upkeep of USFK. 

As the five-year cost-sharing agreement signed in 2014 was to expire in December 2019, the US government upped the pressure on South Korea to steeply increase the latter's financial contribution. Trump even threatened to withdraw the USFK. Last year's intensive negotiations between Washington and Seoul resulted in a compromise, in which South Korea agreed to a modest 8.2 percent increase in its financial contribution whereas the US gained a one-year rather than five-year agreement so that it could make a fresh demand every year. 

A South Korean veteran shouts at a rally to denounce the US demand to raise the defense costs for stationing American troops in South Korea, near the US embassy in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday. US and South Korean officials on Tuesday publicly acknowledged the allies remain far apart in negotiations for increasing South Korea's contributions to the costs for maintaining the American military presence on its soil. Photo: AP

This year, the Trump administration threw a jaw-dropping demand to the negotiating table by seeking to hike South Korea's contribution to a staggering $5 billion, an about fivefold increase from the number in previous year. According to the new proposal, South Korea not only needs to pay for what it used to pay such as South Korean employees who work for the USFK, the construction cost for military facilities and military support costs, it will also need to partially foot the bill with regard to the USFK's rotational deployment expenses, joint military exercises and even pay for US civilian employees and their family members. Such an unconventional and unilateral demand not only put a substantial financial onus on South Korea, which is struggling with a sagging economy, but also dealt a psychological blow to South Koreans, who see the demand as blackmail. 

The requested sum is exorbitant. The tactic adopted by the Trump administration is also quite impressive. In order to pressure South Korea to make a huge concession, Trump sharpened his rhetoric, accusing Seoul of ingratitude and defining South Korea as a rich country, which should pay more for any joint defense activity. In order to show Washington's disappointment, US negotiators broke off talks with South Korea on Tuesday November 19 and abruptly left. Reuters reported Thursday that "US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said earlier he was not aware of any plans to withdraw troops from South Korea if cost-sharing talks failed." Some analysts still believe that Trump may do so if the ongoing negotiations do not go as he wishes.

The timing to up the pressure on South Korea was carefully calculated. First, South Korean President Moon Jae-in's approval rate slid to a dangerous low and his country's relations with some major players in Northeast Asia are already in a bad shape. Seoul became embroiled in arguments with Tokyo over a variety of issues; North Korean leader Kim Jong-un repeatedly snubbed Moon's olive branch; China and South Korea still live in the shadow of their dispute over Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment. 

Second, Trump administration knows that other US allies are closely watching when it fights an uphill battle on its demand from Seoul. The Trump administration makes no secret of its intention to squeeze other allies for more military financial contribution. Many member states of NATO were constantly reminded for failing to honor their commitment to the 2 percent goal - dedicate 2 percent of their national economic output on defense every year. Japan was also reportedly asked for a 300 percent increase - from $2 billion to $8 billion - in yearly payment for US troops in Japan. Therefore, if the Trump administration succeeds in the first major battle with South Korea, other allies may have to follow suit. 

Nonetheless, to score the first victory is not easy. More Koreans believe that the USFK not only provides protection to South Korea, but also serves US national security interests in the Asia-Pacific region. It is unfair for South Korea to shoulder the heavy financial burden for stationing US troops on the Korean Peninsula

In addition, the South Korean government also puts a procedural obstacle in the way of negotiations by insisting that the US government seeks a revision of the current Special Measures Agreement if it wants South Korea to cover additional costs. More importantly, the Moon administration cannot ignore the strong anti-US sentiment in South Korea. 

Yonhap News Agency reported on November 16 that "96 percent of [South Korean] respondents in a recent survey opposed any sharp rise in Seoul's share of the burden." Protests against the US have erupted one after the other. It will be political suicide if the Moon administration accepts the US demand. 

Seemingly, the ongoing cost-sharing dispute between Washington and Seoul is all about money. It reveals Trump's deep-seated resentment against South Korea as the latter always failed to respond to his call, such as sending its naval ships to the Persian Gulf to join the US-led maritime patrol there or taking a stand in the US-China trade war or agreeing to future deployment of US intermediate-range missiles in South Korean territory. Trump moaned in September that in many cases, South Korea does not do much for the US. 

However, no matter how difficult the cost-sharing negotiations are, both the US and South Korea will seek a quick solution as time runs out. Moreover, both countries cannot afford to break the alliance. If Seoul cannot satisfy the monetary demand, it may be forced to do something else, like expanding its alliance with Washington beyond the Korean Peninsula.

The author is associate professor with the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China; a senior researcher with the Pangoal Institute.

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