- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Biting disagreement over the Trump administration’s demand that Seoul pay more for the upkeep of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea will hang over the agenda next week when Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper hosts his South Korean counterpart at the Pentagon.

South Korea announced this week that Defense Minister Jeong Kyeon-doo will be in Washington for talks with Mr. Esper on Monday — a visit coming three months after negotiations on the troop payment issue broke down during a visit Mr. Esper made to Seoul.

The U.S. defense secretary said during the visit in November that South Korea “is a wealthy country and could and should pay more.”

Reuters noted at the time that a South Korean lawmaker had claimed U.S. officials were demanding Seoul pay up to $5 billion a year — more than five times what the South Korean government agreed to pay a year ago under a current deal that expired on Jan. 1.

U.S. Forces in Korea said last month that it had begun sending furlough letters to Korean workers who support U.S. troops in the country and whose salaries come from funds put up by the South Korean government under the annual pact.

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris has said the workers are currently still being paid with residual funds from last year’s agreement. The workers are expected to be placed on leave in April if no agreement is reached by then.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Esper and Mr. Jeong will make progress on the matter Monday.

The issue has been a contentious one between Washington and Seoul since President Trump took office three years ago and began pressuring various U.S. allies to shoulder more of the cost of hosting American troops. The administration has put similar demands on Japan, where some 50,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed.

In announcing Mr. Jeong’s upcoming visit, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said a full range of issues is on the agenda, including the cost-sharing dispute and the future of joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.

There is speculation the drills — a round of which typically occurs in late-February and early-March — will be significantly curtailed this year amid concern North Korea might seize on them as a justification to carry out an unwanted provocation, such as an intercontinental ballistic missile test.

During his visit to Seoul in November, Mr. Esper said the U.S. and South Korea need to be flexible with regard to the scope of the drills so they don’t undermine ongoing attempts to restart stalled denuclearization diplomacy with Pyongyang. South Korean officials are reported to agree with the sentiment.

Mr. Jeong will be in the U.S. for six days, meeting also with U.S. lawmakers and traveling to California to visit a U.S. Marine Corps division that fought to protect South Korea during the 1950-1953 Korean war.

The South Korean defense minister will also visit the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict, Yonhap reported.

The news agency cited a South Korean defense ministry statement as saying the “trip will be an opportunity to show the iron-clad alliance between South Korea and the U.S. and their firm joint defense posture.”

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