U.S. Walks Out of Military Cost-Sharing Talks With South Korea

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(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. walked out of military cost-sharing talks with South Korea, after the key American ally balked at President Donald Trump’s demands for a five-fold funding increase.

The chief U.S. negotiator, James DeHart, said that the American side cut short talks planned for Tuesday in Seoul because the South Koreans “were not responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden-sharing.” The South Korean foreign ministry said it had expected to discuss “an acceptable range for both counterparts” based on past cost-sharing discussions.

U.S. Walks Out of Military Cost-Sharing Talks With South Korea

Jeong Eun-bo, who led the South Korean delegation, separately told reporters that talks ended when his American counterparts “left their seats first,” adding the two sides had “quite a big difference in principle.” The current cost-sharing agreement reached earlier this year expires at the end of 2019.

The breakdown raises new questions about one of the U.S.’s closest military alliances and a key piece of the Pentagon’s strategy for countering North Korea and a rising China. Trump sent a high-powered mission led by Defense Secretary Mark Esper to Seoul last week to try to convince President Moon Jae-in’s government to pay more for hosting U.S. troops.

Trump has demanded South Korea contribute about $5 billion for hosting U.S. troops, well above the current one-year deal where Seoul pays about $1 billion. The price tag originated with the White House, according to people familiar with the matter, and administration officials justify it by saying it reflects the costs South Korea would incur if it takes operational control of combined U.S.-South Korean forces in the case of a conflict.

Trump has repeatedly expressed frustration with the open-ended troop deployment, saying after his first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year that he would “like to bring them back home, but that’s not part of the equation right now.” At the same time, he has accepted a long-standing Kim demand and suspended major joint military exercises that the two sides have relied on to maintain readiness.

A recent history of U.S.-South Korea funding talks:
  • Dec. 2018 - U.S. wants South Korea to double payment and cut term of funding deal to two years from five, Chosun newspaper reports
  • February - U.S., South Korea reach one-year deal that calls for Seoul to contribute about $1 billion to host some 28,500 U.S. service members
  • March - Administration officials tell Bloomberg News Trump wants countries to pay all costs and 50% premium on top
  • October - U.S. seeks almost $5 billion from South Korea, South Korean media say

The request for more money hasn’t sat well in South Korea, where many in Moon’s progressive camp and opposition conservatives have come out against demands seen as excessive. Moon, facing a sagging support rate, may not want to make any major concessions that further dent his popularity ahead of an election for parliament next year.

“I’m not going to prognosticate or speculate on what we may or may not do,” Esper said when asked during a briefing Tuesday in Manila about whether the U.S. would consider reducing troop levels on the Korean Peninsula. “The State Department has the lead in these discussions, and I’m sure they are in capable hands. We just take this one step at a time.”

U.S. Walks Out of Military Cost-Sharing Talks With South Korea

The U.S. has about 28,500 service members in South Korea who help protect the country from the likes of North Korea, one of the world’s most militarized states.

“We cut short our participation in the talks today in order to give the Korean side some time to reconsider and I hope to put forward new proposals that would enable both sides to work towards a mutually acceptable agreement in the spirit of our great alliance,” said DeHart, a senior State Department adviser for security negotiations and agreements.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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