Washington is demanding that Seoul pay 1.5 times more money for U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, starting from January 1, 2019, according to the Wall Street Journal on Friday. Furthermore, President Trump reportedly wants South Korea to pay twice the current amount. A certain increase in troop funding was inevitable as President Trump has been complaining about “security free-riding” and demanding that allies “pay 100 percent of their defense spending.” But if the U.S. demands a massive increase in troop funding, it would come under fire for neglecting the value of the South Korea-U.S. alliance and the strategic importance of the U.S. troops stationed in Korea.
South Korea is currently paying 960.2 billion won a year for the stationing of 28,500 American troops in Korea, including personnel expenses for Korean employees working for the U.S. Armed Forces in Korea, construction works and combined defense improvement project (CDIP), and military supplies. The two countries signed a five-year contract called Special Measures Agreement (SMA) on cost-sharing for the U.S. force presence on the Korean Peninsula in 2014. South Korea agreed to an increase of 5.8 percent from the previous year’s contributions in 2014 and allowed for adjustments for inflation since then. Seoul and Washington will negotiate for a new contract as the current agreement expires at the end of this month. The two allies are entering into a round of consultations for the 10th SMA in Seoul starting from Tuesday. As the new agreement must be ratified by the National Assembly, the two countries should strike a deal as soon as possible.
As Washington's demand to increase the defense contributions has been expected, Seoul should have handled the issue more meticulously. Although it is hard to change President Trump’s stance on the issue, the U.S. is a country whose Congress, members of the administration, and thinktanks have a huge influence on the country’s policymaking. It is questionable what diplomatic efforts the Moon Jae-in administration has made to stress the importance of the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. and dispel the controversy over security free-riding.
The U.S., on its part, should stop demanding a massive increase in military funding. The U.S. Armed Forces in Korea is serving as a safety valve that prevents North Korea from making military provocations and as a key keeping China in check and maintaining a strategic balance in East Asia. South Korea purchases 80 percent of its weapons from the U.S. Since this is based on the South Korea-U.S. Combined Defense System, Washington is gaining considerable economic benefits from the alliance. The two allies should share the common values of strategic importance of U.S. Armed Forces in Korea and the alliance and reach a win-win agreement.