- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2020

Disagreement over the Trump administration’s demand that Seoul pay more for the upkeep of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea threatens to undermine otherwise positive discussions that are expected Monday, when Defense Secretary Mark Esper hosts his South Korean counterpart at the Pentagon.

After repeated failures to reach a defense cost-sharing deal and renew the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that expired between the two allies at the end of last year, U.S. officials say they hope South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo takes a conciliatory posture during his six-day visit to the United States this week.

The SMA dispute is among several issues on the agenda for the visit, during which South Korean officials say Mr. Jeong hopes to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War by underscoring the “ironclad” alliance between Washington and Seoul.

The status of U.S.-South Korea joint military drills is expected to be discussed Monday. There is speculation the drills — a round of which typically occurs in late-February and early-March — will be curtailed this year amid concern North Korea might seize on them as a justification to carry out provocations that could affect stalled denuclearization talks with Washington.

But sources say the troops payment issue hangs most heavily over Monday’s meeting, which comes roughly three months after SMA talks broke down in Seoul. Mr. Esper made global headlines during a visit to the South Korean capital at the time by asserting that South Korea “is a wealthy country and could and should pay more.”

The comment was followed by reports that U.S. officials had demanded the South Koreans pay up to $5 billion a year — more than five times what they had paid a year ago under the now-expired SMA.

Officials in Seoul have expressed frustration during the months since, and there has been no sign of progress toward a compromise.

The Pentagon’s main office 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 annually renewed SMA.

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

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported over the weekend that it had been told by a State Department official on condition of anonymity that “significant work remains to narrow the gap between the two sides.”

“During the course of negotiations, we have adjusted and compromised,” the U.S. official said. “We’re looking for compromise from the government of Korea as well.”

The issue has been contentious 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 stationed.

Some analysts warn the approach risks alienating South Korea and Japan and could reduce their willingness to cooperate in wider U.S. efforts to confront China. Others suggest Washington should be wary of appearing to views alliances as “transactional” arrangements.

“There is much that Korea should be doing and yes Korea is now a very well off country,” said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Special Forces colonel and regional expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“I agree that the amount of burden sharing can be increased, but we should be approaching negotiations from the perspective of our alliance — shared interests, shared values and shared strategy,” Mr. Maxwell said in comments circulated via email on Sunday. “We should ask if we should really want to turn our alliances into purely transactional relationships.”

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