South Korean and U.S. negotiators have tentatively reached agreement on their defense cost-sharing deal, with the agreement waiting for the final approval by the leaders of the two countries. The two sides reportedly agreed that South Korea would pay an increase of 10%+α over the next five years. Although it remains a considerable hike from an 8.2% increase in the prior agreement, it is quite optimistic that Seoul has managed to persuade Washington to lower its initial demand and extended the validity period of the agreement from one year to five years.
The news came after the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) had placed its South Korea employees on unpaid leave starting Wednesday. The defense cost-sharing talks had been at a deadlock due to excessive demands by the Trump administration. From the beginning, Washington had demanded a fivefold increase in Seoul’s share of stationing American troops here to 5 trillion won. They reportedly insisted that Seoul pay at least 3-4 trillion won, including the cost of offshore training exercises and rotational troop deployments until last month. There were criticisms even within the U.S. Congress that President Donald Trump is putting South Korea-U.S. alliance at risk.
The COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. has played a role in making a breakthrough in the talks. A government official said the breakthrough was made after South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Trump spoke on the phone on Mar. 24 over COVID-19 responses and the need for the two countries to cooperate. Washington appears to have decided to take a more flexible approach and avoid a conflict since it is in need of South Korea’s support, such as test kits to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The strain in the South Korea-U.S. alliance surrounding defense cost-sharing talks is mainly caused by President Trump’s twisted thoughts on alliance, where he put money before alliance. But the differences of opinions the two countries displayed on policies toward North Korea and China have made many doubt if the two countries are allies at all. The true value of alliance is revealed in a time of crisis. But what sealed a crack in the alliance was the unexpected COVID-19 crisis. The two countries should not let it pass and just think it was fortunate. They should think seriously about how once a solid alliance turned into fragile and convenient relations. The two allies should reflect on their past behaviors that damaged the foundation of the alliance and make a commitment to solidify the alliance once again.