The United States and South Korea have agreed “in principle” on a military cost-sharing deal, the State Department said Tuesday, in a move that would settle a key dispute between the longtime allies amid sensitive nuclear talks with North Korea.
The announcement comes more than a month after the previous pact, known as the Special Measures Agreement, expired. The two sides sparred over Washington’s demand that Seoul pay “significantly more” for the daily maintenance of some 28,500 U.S. servicemembers, their dependents and other Americans supporting the mission.
“The United States and the Republic of Korea have reached an agreement in principle on a new Special Measures Agreement,” the State Department said. “Both sides are committed to working out remaining technical issues as quickly as possible.”
The statement added that the U.S. “appreciates the considerable resources” that South Korea provides to support the alliance, which was forged when the two countries fought together against the communist-backed North in the 1950-53 war.
The State Department didn’t provide details. The Trump administration has not publicly stated its new price tag, but officials from both countries have been quoted as saying that Washington wanted Seoul to more than double its annual payment of about $850 million per year.
Diplomats were eager to resolve the issue amid a new push to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are widely expected to hold a second summit in coming weeks to try to break an impasse in how to implement their earlier agreement on denuclearization.
Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, planned to meet with his North Korean counterpart in Pyongyang on Wednesday to prepare for the meeting.
Brinkmanship is common in the burden sharing talks, but the issue was more complicated this year because of Trump’s complaints that U.S. allies need to pay more for their own defense.
Negotiations led by senior diplomats failed to reach consensus after 10 rounds of talks last year.
CNN quoted an unnamed State Department official as saying Monday that South Korea had agreed to boost its contribution to nearly $1 billion according to the revised pact.
Washington lowered its demand but insisted the contract would be reduced to one year instead of the usual five, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported, citing an anonymous diplomatic source in Seoul.
The standoff raised fears that Trump may use the disagreement as an excuse to follow through on previous threats to reduce troop numbers on the divided peninsula.
Trump said in an interview with CBS broadcast Sunday that he has “never even discussed removing them,” although he reiterated his complaint that they’re very expensive and said, “maybe someday.”
South Korea insists it pays a fair share of the some $2 billion per year needed to keep the troops in the country. U.S. Forces Korea, the main command, said in its Strategic Digest that South Korea paid about 41 percent of the cost. That sum mainly goes to pay salaries for South Koreans employed by the military and other logistical support.
The South also paid the bulk of the more than $11 billion price tag for expanding Camp Humphreys as part of a long-delayed plan to relocate most Americans south of Seoul.
Services have not yet been interrupted thanks to reserve funds, but USFK had warned the Korean Employees’ Union that it would have to put local staff on unpaid leave beginning in mid-April if a deal wasn’t reached.
American officials also insisted the matter had not affected operations or defense issues.
“The U.S. commitment to the security of [South Korea] and its people remains ironclad,” a U.S. Embassy official said Tuesday.
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