Seoul says it will not pay for upkeep of US troops outside of Korea

By Jo He-rim
  • Published : Dec 19, 2019 - 17:20
  • Updated : Dec 19, 2019 - 17:29

South Korea’s top negotiator for the defense cost-sharing deal with the United States said Thursday that Seoul has made clear it cannot pay for the cost of maintaining US troops stationed outside the country, a concession that Washington is seeking.

A day before, Jeong Eun-bo, Korea’s chief negotiator, and his US counterpart, James DeHart, ended their two-day talks without an agreement on renewing the defense cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement.

Jeong Eun-bo (Yonhap)

“The SMA is founded on the Status of Forces Agreement. In that aspect, we hold our own principle that the SMA should be maintained in its current form and we have legal grounds for our claim,” Jeong said in a press briefing Thursday.

The allies first signed the Special Measures Agreement in 1991, with Seoul agreeing to bear part of the costs of maintaining about 28,500 United States Forces Korea troops stationed here.

The SMA was an exception to SOFA, which stipulated that the US would bear all expenditures for the maintenance of its forces here.

According to the current SMA, the costs covered by Seoul include Korean civilians hired by USFK, the construction of military facilities to maintain the allies’ readiness and other forms of support.

After their meeting on Wednesday, DeHart spoke with Korean reporters to reveal that the US seeks to expand Seoul’s coverage, possibly through a new category in the SMA.

“This comes back to the issue that I raised before, which is the current framework does not capture … the real cost to us associated with the defense of Korea,” DeHart told the Korean press corps. “So we propose that the SMA framework be adjusted so that it really can capture the full range of costs.”

James DeHart (Yonhap)

DeHart elaborated that the extra costs it seeks to negotiate include all rotations of US military personnel to the Korean Peninsula and temporary deployments, who would be trained appropriately for the defense of Korea.

DeHart also said Washington has made changes in its initial demand for Seoul to pay some $5 billion annually for the US troops, which would have been a fivefold increase from the previous agreement.

“The figure will be different from our initial proposal, and probably different from what we’ve heard from the Korean side so far. So we will find that point of agreement,” DeHart said. “(Five billion dollars) is not a number that we are currently focused on in the negotiations.”

For this year’s agreement inked in February, Seoul agreed to pay 1.04 trillion won ($920 million), an increase of 8.2 percent from the 960 billion won it paid for the previous year.

Jeong reiterated Thursday that Korea has insisted that the negotiations stick to the SMA’s current framework, which specifies cost categories comprising personnel, military construction and logistical support.

Jeong also confirmed that the two sides were discussing whether to extend the term of validity of the contract. Until last year, SMA contracts were effective for five years.

When they signed the latest agreement for this year in February, Korea accepted a US demand to sign a deal valid for only one year.

The SMA for this year’s burden-sharing is to expire Dec. 31. The negotiators will meet for the next round of talks in the US in January.

By Jo He-rim (