Seoul, Washington start pre-talks to renew defense cost sharing

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By Lee Min-hyung

A discussion about the renewal of the highly-controversial defense cost sharing agreement between South Korea and the United States is about to begin amid Washington’s repeated signals the U.S. plans to shift more of the cost burden onto Seoul. On Tuesday, Timothy Betts, acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary who led the country’s delegation during the latest negotiation, met with his South Korean counterpart Chang Won-sam in Seoul.

The two ranking officials had engaged in rounds of fierce negotiations during the 10th defense cost sharing agreement signed in March. The talks were aimed at deciding the cost-sharing burden for the upkeep of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

Expectations are Chang and Betts planned the logistics for their upcoming negotiations during their closed-door meeting.

As the agreement, often called the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), is valid only for a year, Seoul and Washington are on track to organize new negotiation teams to gear up for the 2020 SMA. Under the 2019 agreement, the South is paying 1.04 trillion won ($859 million) for the stationing 28,500 USFK soldiers here, up 8.2 percent from the previous year.

As of Tuesday, neither side had finished establishing negotiating delegations. For this reason, Betts’ Seoul visit is also interpreted as part of Washington putting pressure on Seoul to start the renewal negotiation as early as possible.

The major issue surrounding the negotiation is how much additional costs the South will take on under the 2020 SMA.

Washington was rumored to have demanded Seoul pay about $5 billion (6.05 trillion won) for the upkeep of the USFK next year during a Seoul visit by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton last month. Seoul’s foreign ministry flatly denied the rumor, saying the report is far from the truth.

The amount would be about a five-fold increase, compared to that of this year. This includes costs to operate and deploy U.S. strategic weapons in use for joint military exercises with the South.

Seoul’s foreign ministry declined to comment in detail over the upcoming defense cost sharing talk, as the negotiation has yet to officially kick off.

“The full-fledged negotiation ― not to mention the naming of representatives for the talks ― has yet to begin,” an official from the foreign ministry said. “Our position is to renew the deal in a reasonable and fair manner.”

Meanwhile, North Korea denounced the South for what the former called “humiliating diplomacy” with the U.S.

“The [U.S.’] demand [for the South] to increase the defense cost sharing burden derived from the South Korean government’s humiliating act of following the U.S.,” the North’s state-controlled Rodong Sinmun said Tuesday, the last day of the Seoul-Washington joint command post military exercise.

“The combined command post drill, conducted by South Korean warmongers and the U.S., is an unforgivable military provocation aimed at invading us (the North),” it said.