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With clock ticking, US, South Korea fail to reach deal on military cost-sharing

President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)
December 18, 2018

With an end-of-year deadline fast approaching, the United States and South Korea failed to reach a new military cost-sharing agreement in talks this week as Washington demanded that its ally pay “significantly more,” officials said Friday.

The dispute adds pressure on the longtime alliance between the two countries at a critical time as they try to project solidarity in diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Senior diplomats from both sides held three days of talks ending Thursday in Seoul to try to hammer out a new five-year deal, but negotiators were unable to agree on U.S. demands that South Korea increase its share of the burden for maintaining some 28,500 U.S. troops on the divided peninsula.

“The U.S. government’s position is that [South Korea] should more equitably share in the financial burden,” embassy spokesman Grant Guthrie said Friday. “Our administration has been clear in the expectation that our allies including [South Korea] contribute more given the immense costs incurred by the United States.

“Our position is [South Korea] must contribute significantly more than it’s currently offering to achieve a fair burden-sharing arrangement in which [it] bears a greater burden for its own defense,” he added, without giving a specific figure.

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President Donald Trump has demanded that South Korea increase its contribution to as much as double the current amount, or more than $1 billion per year, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.

Guthrie said discussions are ongoing and both sides are still striving to reach a deal, although he couldn’t comment on whether another formal round of talks may be held this month. A South Korean official ruled out that possibility.

“The U.S. government stands by our [South Korean] ally, including through the shared obligations under our mutual defense treaty,” Guthrie said. “The U.S. commitment to the security of [South Korea] and its people is ironclad.”

Brinkmanship is common in the burden-sharing talks, which occur every five years. In 2013, the allies missed the Dec. 31 deadline but managed to reach a deal a few weeks later, with South Korea agreeing to increase its contribution by 5.8 percent.

But Trump has raised the stakes by making efforts to force allies to pay more a key part of his presidential platform.

Seoul insists it already pays a fair share at some $830 million per year, or nearly half the total cost of stationing the troops in the South, which remains technically at war with the North since their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

South Korea also separately footed most of the nearly $11 billion bill for the expansion of the Camp Humphreys Army garrison as part of a long-delayed plan to relocate most U.S. forces south of Seoul. Trump visited the base with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last year.

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The Special Measures Agreement largely covers the salaries of at least 9,000 South Korean employees who work on U.S. bases as well as local services and construction.

U.S. Forces Korea, the main command, notified the Korean Employees Union and the labor ministry on Nov. 7 that local staff will have to be furloughed in the spring if no agreement is reached.

USFK declined to speculate on potential outcomes, citing ongoing consultations, but said it would seek a swift conclusion to mitigate a possible lapse in South Korean contributions.

It promised to ensure South Korean employees “have adequate time to prepare” for the possibility of unpaid leave.

“We value our Korean national workforce and their contribution to the Alliance,” the spokesperson’s office said in a statement.

Operations are expected to continue in the meantime as reserve funds are available, officials have said.

South Korean government officials said the two sides differed over a contract period and some other contentious issues in addition to Seoul’s financial contributions

It was unlikely that another round of formal talks would be held this month, but the two sides planned to continue communications through other channels, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the details.

Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.