Ahead of talks over South Korea’s share of the costs of the U.S. Forces Korea, which will take place in Hawaii on Wednesday and Thursday this week, the U.S. State Department said Seoul should take a more fair and equitable share. At a press release on Friday, the State Department made the claim, saying that President Donald Trump been clear that the Republic of Korea can and should contribute more of its fair share. Washington is thus openly pressuring Seoul by demanding a significant hike in South Korea’s share of defense costs prior to full-blown negotiations over burden-sharing.
The U.S. has thus far been demanding South Korea to provide 5 billion U.S. dollars, or more than five times the current level, through various channels. Notably, Washington’s demand includes the costs for South Korea-U.S. joint military drills and deployment of U.S. military’s strategic assets newly added as “preparedness costs,” and even the costs to support U.S. civilian workers in the U.S. military and family members of U.S. soldiers. The amount is even bigger than the 4.4 billion dollars that the U.S. Defense Department disclosed in March as the total costs of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. The demand effectively means the sharing of “full burden” or all costs by South Korea, rather than “fair and equitable burden.”
As for the costs of U.S. forces stationed in South Korea, Seoul is required to provide facilities and land for U.S. troops while Washington takes up the other costs in line with the Status of Forces Agreement. Under the Special Measures Agreement as an extra treaty, Seoul also covers a portion of other expenses. However, these only include three items, namely labor costs for South Korean workers in the U.S. Forces Korea, the construction costs of facilities within the U.S. military bases in Korea, and expenses for military supplies. The costs for deployment of strategic assets and labor costs for U.S. military personnel are unwarranted demand that goes beyond the scope of the treaties for the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Against this backdrop, critics say that Washington may be trying to transform the U.S. forces Korea into hired soldiers, rather than allied forces.
Of course, there is a reason the U.S. is making such exorbitant demand. Washington must be making such a demand because it has failed to persuade President Donald Trump, who believes the entire costs of the U.S. troops stationed in Korea with an extra should be paid by Korea. U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris also said that when negotiations start, the two sides will find a middle ground before concluding the talks. However, even a “middle ground” will pose immense burden on South Korea. Washington’s move to pressure Seoul as if it does not care about the latter’s position is unfriendly and undesirable at best.
Currently, there are already many worries over the future of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Seoul and Washington have differences in their expectations on North Korean nuclear talks, while conflicts have surfaced over the command system after the wartime operational control will be transferred from the U.S. to South Korea, and the expiry of the South Korea-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in November. If Seoul and Washington come to see dispute escalate over money involved in the U.S. Forces Korea, the value of their alliance could be on shaky ground. The alliance is relationship that is formed on the basis of common interests, irrespective of any gap in power. The two allies should hold reasonable negotiations on defense cost-sharing so that the stronger nation will not been seen as being unilateral.