A South Korean Vietnam War veteran shouts during a rally to denounce the United States' demand for raising the defense costs for stationing U.S. troops in South Korea, near the U.S. embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 20, 2019.
A South Korean Vietnam War veteran shouts during a rally to denounce the United States' demand for raising the defense costs for stationing U.S. troops in South Korea, near the U.S. embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 20, 2019.

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.

Christy Lee contributed to this report from VOA's Korean Service.