Washington gave Seoul a proposal suggesting that the two sides set the duration of the Special Measures Agreement’s effect at one year during their recent talks for the signing of the 10th SMA deal. It is a very unusual demand. Ever since South Korea and the U.S. formed the SMA treaty in 1991, the two sides have never signed the agreement with a one-year term. The current, ninth agreement also remains valid for five years. The South Korean Foreign Ministry judges that Washington seeks to exchange a one-year agreement first before aiming to set new frameworks for defense cost-sharing systems that will cover not only South Korea but also other allies including Japan, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members. If this situation continues, there is a mounting chance that the calculation for defense cost-sharing will become more complex, while Washington will beef up pressure on Seoul further.
As U.S. President Donald Trump has claimed “free riders in defense” and “100 percent of the defense cost to be taken by its allies” since he was a presidential candidate, watchers predicted that South Korea would have to accept a certain hike in its contributions to joint defense. South Korea’s contributions to joint defense for this year is 960.2 billion won (960 million dollars), which is a slightly less than 1 trillion won (896 million dollars), or about half of the costs for U.S. Forces Korea.
For Seoul, collaboration with Washington is critical for its policy measures including the implementation of the Korean Peninsula Peace Process. Seoul has no choice but to accept demand for a certain hike in its contributions to joint defense. The problem is the size of the hike to be made. When considering the South’s free provision of facilities and land for U.S. troops and tax reduction, the portion of South Korean contributions to joint defense amounts to 60 percent to 70 percent, while the ratio of South Korea’s contributions relative to its GDP is higher than that of Japan. The South Korean government has paid 91 percent of the 12 trillion won (10.76 billion dollars) in total costs for construction of the new U.S. military base in Pyeongtaek. Seoul has been also under pressure from China due to the deployment of a terminal high-altitude area defense missile system designed to protect both the South Korean people and U.S. Forces Korea.
Moreover, negotiations over contributions to joint defense will inevitably spawn war of nerves and conflict between the allies, no matter how smoothly such talks proceed. Engaging in war of nerves every year due to defense cost sharing is hardly desirable for the future of the South Korea-U.S. alliance at a time when the values of the Seoul-Washington alliance and U.S troops stationed in South Korea face many challenges. President Trump’s excessive demand for a hike in South Korea’s contributions to joint defense has already earned criticism even within the U.S. “It is unfortunate that President Trump sees the alliance from the perspective of ‘transaction,’ rather than of values, interests and strategy,” said David Maxwell, a senior researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and retired colonel from the Special Operation Command for the U.S. Forces Korea.
Washington should not downplay the fact that the U.S. troops stationed in Korea not only serves South Korea’s defense interest but also complies with Washington’s strategic interest. If the U.S. classifies South Korea as “free rider in defense,” and strongly pressures Seoul to increase its contributions to joint defense, it will only add to the causes of conflict in the Seoul-Washington alliance.