Top House Democrats Raise Concerns Over Trump's Cost-Sharing Demands to Seoul
(Source: Voice of America News; issued Dec 04, 2019)
WASHINGTON --- Two top House Democrats are expressing concern over the Trump administration's five-fold increase in cost-sharing that it is demanding Seoul pay for keeping U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
The lawmakers say the move "serves as a needless wedge" between the two allies.
New York Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Democratic Congressman Adam Smith of Washington, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, sent a letter stating that the increase could hamper the ability of U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia to cooperate on combating security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.
The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, was dated Nov. 22 and released on Tuesday.
"At a time when the United States, South Korea and Japan should be working jointly to counter regional security threats ranging from increased North Korean provocations to growing Chinese assertiveness across the region, U.S. demands for a massive increase in South Korean annual contribution serves as a needless wedge between us and our allies," Engel and Smith said.
During a visit to Seoul last month, Esper discussed the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) with South Korean defense officials. But talks concerning the cost-sharing deal broke off quickly because the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.
Seoul said the U.S. asked for $5 billion for 2020 to keep about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. Seoul agreed to pay about $900 million this year in a 2019 pact set to expire at the end of December.
In an article published Monday in Defense News, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo called for "reasonable, as well as fair results, that would be a win-win to both nations" in the ongoing defense cost-sharing negotiations.
He highlighted the importance of the U.S. military in the Korean Peninsula of maintaining readiness with South Korean forces to defend against threats in the region. He also said South Korea made significant contributions toward the strength of the alliance, including constructing Camp Humphreys, a vast, newly built U.S. base in Pyeongtaek, and purchasing U.S.-made weapons.
In their letter, Engel and Smith criticized President Donald Trump for saying "we protect wealthy countries for nothing."
The congressmen pointed out that stationing U.S. troops in South Korea is "not solely about protecting South Korea."
"The primary purpose of our forward presence is to enhance U.S. national security," they said.
Engel and Smith said key U.S. national security challenges in the region include "China's efforts to undermine the rules-based international order" and "Russia's efforts to challenge U.S. policy," as well as "North Korea's continued development of an illicit weapons program."
They said the U.S.-South Korean alliance is essential to defeat these challenges.
In August, Trump said South Korea should pay more because it is "a very wealthy nation," and that "the U.S. has been paid very little by South Korea" in the past.
In November, Esper echoed Trump and said South Korea is "a wealthy country and could and should pay more" for the American military deployment.
Trump has often criticized U.S. alliances, not just with Northeast Asian countries like South Korea and Japan, but with North American and European countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations (NATO).
"We pay for large portions of other countries' military protection," the president said in November.
While meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of Norway during the NATO Summit held in London on Tuesday, Trump said, "We're paying far more than anybody else."
In their letter, Engel and Smith said, "We agree that our allies and partners should fairly contribute to the cost of our presence overseas."
They demanded the Trump administration answer questions they posed about the breakdown of the costs required for the U.S. military presence in South Korea. They also demanded a rationale for the increased costs the U.S. is demanding.
"What is the basis for the requested increase from $924 million per year to roughly $5 billion per year?" they asked.
Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation research center, said last month that the increase is "a major hit and a major disruption of the alliance for South Korea to have to give up that much money and probably not have it go into the U.S. defense budget."
"I think the president's attitude is South Korea is to be sharing more of the burden, and that should go to offsetting the U.S. deficit," he said.
The two House Democrats also asked how the readiness of U.S. forces in South Korea and U.S. national security could be maintained if no agreement is reached in the cost-sharing deal. They requested the Trump administration answer within two weeks.
Trump’s Gamble in USFK Cost-Sharing Deal
(Source: Korea Herald; issued Dec 04, 2019)
Negotiations are underway on US President Donald Trump’s demand for a fivefold increase in South Korea’s payment for the cost of stationing 28,500 US troops here.
The talks in Washington and Seoul may be settled before the year-end. However, the preposterous US demand has raised the average South Korean’s skepticism about the alliance -- by as much as five times.
It could be the famous “art of the deal” of the American businessman-turned-president, but it simply borders on insanity to seek a 500 percent increase in a counterpart’s contribution in an annual review of a contract. Even a 50 percent raise over a period of five years would still be considered exorbitant in normal business practices.
The US demand comes after South Korea’s contribution saw a steady annual increase of single-digit percentages over the past years. The first question arising among Koreans is: What will happen if we refuse to comply? Are they going to leave, possibly by increments of several hundreds or thousands of troops? What about the congressional binding on pulling troops out of South Korea?
The only reason Trump has given for the $5 billion bill in his Twitter politics is that South Korea is a rich country that can afford the high price. This is coming from the head of state of the richest nation in the world. Trump chose South Korea as a warm-up for negotiations with Japan, the EU and Saudi Arabia. Among these allies, the EU quickly reached settlement with a significant raise over the coming five years.
South Korea’s counteroffer cannot but hover around the level of a 10 percent increase. Its supra-partisan parliamentary delegation to Washington told US Congress leaders that under South Korea’s fiscal system, like in any other democracy, the legislature simply cannot pass a budget bill containing such a sudden increase in external expenses.
South Korea recently took a step back in its dispute with Japan over the compensation of World War II forced laborers. Tokyo imposed export restrictions on certain chemical products to South Korea. In response, South Korea decided to terminate a bilateral arrangement to share military information. Under the US’ pressure, Seoul made a last-minute concession on the General Sharing of Military Information Agreement with Japan, amid the ongoing negotiations on USFK costs.
Of course, there is the larger question of denuclearizing North Korea, which vitally affects the security of South Korea, the US and Japan, tied by two separate alliances. However, it does not seem to be a major factor for Trump in considering his deal with the South on the USFK costs.
In a few weeks, we will hear a joint announcement that will reveal one of the following:
1) South Korea’s capitulation with the doubling of its share -- 500 percent is inconceivable under any circumstances.
2) A US concession with a slightly higher increase rate compared with last year.
3) A final breakdown, which means continuation of the present scale for the time being until Washington makes a major decision on the status and function of its forces stationed in South Korea.
The “troop pullout card” has been in the hands of the American president since the Jimmy Carter era. Senior State and Defense Department officials have hinted at downsizing the USFK by several thousand, but they should know the reduced impact of such a “warning” on the South Korean public, given the changing sentiment toward the US military presence, particularly since new administrations took office in Washington and Seoul.
The “tripwire” role and the concept of “automatic intervention” that had long been recognized for the USFK as a deterrence against war on the Korean Peninsula have nearly been forgotten since the southward relocation of its outfits began years ago. But the US forces still maintain formidable firepower on the ground, in the air and at sea -- not to mention the nuclear umbrella they stand for.
And there is the vast Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, reputedly the largest US military base outside US territory. It was expanded from a logistics depot over several years to house most of the USFK’s ground elements. Together with the nearby Osan Air Base, the US garrison will serve as the base of strategic mobile force to be sent to any flash point that calls for US military intervention.
For some time, the South Korean government had opposed the shift of the USFK status that could possibly affect the security system on the peninsula. But the two allies have reached a tacit compromise in parallel with the issue of transferring the operational control of the allied forces here from the United States to South Korea to be exercised both in times of peace and war.
The cost for the construction of the sprawling military city was split half and half between the two allies, with South Korea providing the pricey landsite in the central zone and workforce. The US side covered other expenses for the project with part of the Korean contribution to the cost of stationing the USFK. Therefore, more Korean money was actually spent, but 50-50 has been established on the account book as a financial formula to maintain the military alliance, which started in the Korean War.
South Korea is far more economically sustainable than six decades ago. We have been doing our part in the bilateral contract, continuously increasing our portion in bearing the cost of keeping the USFK on Korean soil, though their number has been reduced from over 300,000 at the end of the war to less than one-tenth of that now. In the meantime, Korean blood was shed in the war in Vietnam and in the Middle East conflicts in fulfillment of the treaty alliance.
Trump thinks that a military alliance is a give-and-take deal rather than a framework of common values and interests. For a long time, we believed that alliance, if created out of necessity, builds up trust through mutual cooperation. That belief is being shaken by Trump’s tweets.
Last month, a US negotiator walked out of a conference room without shaking the hands of his counterpart. In such circumstances, we can feel how the alliance has transformed.