- The Washington Times
Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Talks on boosting South Korea’s financial support for the U.S. military defense aid in the country broke down Tuesday as Seoul firmly rejected the Trump administration’s reported demand for a fivefold increase in the annual bill to cover the cost of American troops on the peninsula.

American negotiators said they abruptly ended the meeting when their South Korean counterparts’ proposal did not meet the “fair and equitable” U.S. request for more money. But the impasse in the talks puts a new strain on a key U.S. alliance, and it comes at a crucial moment as the two nations are working together to restart stalled denuclearization talks with North Korea.

Some foreign policy analysts say the breakdown calls into question President Trump’s press for more financial burden-sharing from allies, including Japan and leading NATO countries, and Mr. Trump should abandon efforts to earn a financial return from the presence of American forces stationed overseas.

“Seeking to profit off U.S. forces overseas is inconsistent with American values and commitments. It is a break from U.S. post-World War II policy,” said Bruce Klingner, former CIA Korea deputy chief and now a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “The Trump administration has made a point of urging allies to contribute ‘an equitable share to our mutually beneficial collective security’ … But all allies are not the same. South Korea and Japan should be recognized for their significant contributions” rather than being asked to pay exorbitantly more.

But top administration officials have taken a hard line on South Korea’s attempts to strike a compromise.

“Unfortunately, the proposals that were put forward by the Korean team were not responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden sharing,” State Department official James DeHart told reporters after the meeting. “As a result, we cut short our participation in the talks today in order to give the Korean side some time to reconsider and, I hope, to put forward new proposals that would enable both sides to work towards a mutually acceptable agreement.”

The U.S. demand is another example of President Trump’s insistence that nations around the world pony up more money to cover the expenses of American military protection. The U.S. has kept troops stationed on the peninsula since the end of Korean War hostilities in 1953. The forces are a deterrent against North Korean aggression and frequently take part in joint military drills with the South Korean military, though one of those exercises was scrapped this week in a diplomatic olive branch to Pyongyang.

While neither country has officially confirmed the figures, South Korean lawmakers have said the U.S. is seeking a $5 billion annual payment to cover the costs of the roughly 28,500 American troops stationed there. South Korea this year agreed to a more modest increase in cost-sharing, upping its payment to about $900 million from last year’s $830 million.

U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, have hammered home the need for South Korea to pay more in recent trips to Seoul. Top South Korean officials are standing firm in their opposition.

“In principle, we have declared a burden sharing that is mutually viable. However, it is true that there is a significant difference between the overall proposal from the United States and our position in principle,” lead South Korean negotiator Jeong Eun-bo told reporters after the meeting, according to the nation’s Yonhap News Agency.

In a statement later Tuesday, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said any new agreement should follow the cost-sharing formula both nations have adhered to for the past 28 years. Complying with the new U.S. demand, South Korean officials said, would require an act of parliament in Seoul, and there appears to be little political support for such a move.

Specialists argue that the administration has needlessly picked a fight with a nation that already spends more on defense than many of the NATO allies Mr. Trump routinely criticizes. Seoul spends about 2.6 % of its GDP on defense, and the country over the past four years also has bought roughly $13 billion in arms from the U.S.

If Seoul were to meet the new $5 billion demand, the country would spend roughly 11% of its entire defense budget on payments to U.S. forces.

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