Amid the U.S. diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea, Washington and Seoul are negotiating a new deal on sharing the cost of maintaining U.S. forces in South Korea, because the last Special Measures Agreement (SMA) expired Dec. 31.
Military experts told VOA they expect South Korea and the U.S. will remain firm allies despite the dispute that centers on a disagreement about how much the U.S. wants South Korea to pay as its share.
Washington wants double the $850 million Seoul paid last year to cover the cost of stationing about the 28,500 American troops on more than 20 bases in South Korea.
Since March, Seoul and Washington have held 10 rounds of talks but remained deadlocked, raising fears that President Donald Trump might threaten to draw down forces as he prepares for a second summit with North Korea.
Washington and Seoul need to reach an agreement for the new cost-sharing deal by mid-April. Otherwise, about 8,700 Koreans employed by the U.S. forces in South Korea may be put on leave. Seoul is covering those costs until the new agreement is reached as the provisions of the expired SMA stipulates.
Room for compromise
Bruce Bechtol, a retired Marine and former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency who now studies North Korea’s military at Angelo State University in Texas, believes “there’s a room for compromise on both sides.”
He said the disagreement over the cost “happened every year there’s been SMA talks in the past.” He continued, “In the end, we reached a deal that everyone could agree on.”
General John Tilelli, a retired four-star general who was commander of the U.S. and South Korean Combined Forces Command (CFC) from 1996 to 1999 said, “The negotiations should be viewed with the focus of what it takes to deter North Korea and its large conventional forces and weapons of mass destruction and cause North Korea to denuclearize and become a country that believes in the right of its people to be free.”
Tilelli continued “There should be nothing that weakens the [South Korean] and U.S. alliance.”
David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel who served on the CFC and is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, believes a strong bond between Washington and South Korea “can transcend the current friction.”
But he thinks, in the end, South Korea “will have to increase funding to satisfy Trump.”
Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. research center, however, expressed concern that North Korea will use the opportunity to drive a wedge between the two allies.
“North Korea’s got to love what’s going on,” Bennett said. “North Korea really would like to see the end of the U.S.-[South Korean] alliance. … They want there to be much less … rationale for the U.S. troops to be in South Korea.”
Washington initially asked Seoul to contribute $1.6 billion but later reduced the amount to $1.2 billion; Seoul rejected both. Washington slashed the amount again but suggested the deal be extended for only one year instead of the usual five.
Seoul contends that it is not asking the U.S. to pay for the property use, and Washington argues that $850 million is a fraction of the total cost of about $2 billion.
Trump has repeatedly expressed his disdain for alliances and threatened to pull out of NATO, America’s military alliance with Europe. At his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, Trump canceled joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that he thought were too expensive.