Pompeo, Esper Press South Korea for Troop Funding in WSJ Op-Ed

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(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration told South Korea it needed to pay more for hosting U.S. troops, delivering its message in the Wall Street Journal about a day after talks between the two failed to strike a new funding deal.

“We must find a better way to share the costs of defense with South Korea and secure a stable and prosperous future for the Korean people,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper wrote in an op-ed published under the headline “South Korea Is an Ally, Not a Dependent.” “As a global economic powerhouse and an equal partner in the preservation of peace on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea can and should contribute more to its defense.”

The message was the latest public volley in contentious talks that have included U.S. negotiators walking out of a meeting in Seoul last year and President Donald Trump demanding South Korea pay about five time more for American protection. The friction has raised 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.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House on Friday reiterated its stance that the defense cost-sharing should be discussed within the current framework, in a way that strengthens the alliance and is also fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable. On Thursday the foreign ministry said after the latest round of funding talks that “there’s a difference in stances.”

The deal known as the Special Measures Agreement technically expired at the end of this year, but emergency financing has been used as they negotiate, allowing for the continued operations of the about 28,500 U.S. military personnel positioned on the peninsula.

On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris told reporters that time may be running out, putting at risk the jobs of nearly 10,000 Koreans who work on bases. He said the U.S. has made adjustments in its request for funding from South Korea to host U.S. troops and was looking for Seoul to do the same -- without mentioning any figures.

Trump has demanded Seoul contribute about $5 billion for hosting U.S. troops. 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.

South Korea is paying about $1 billion a year and the request for more money hasn’t sat well, where many in President Moon Jae-in’s progressive camp and opposition conservatives have come out against the U.S. demands. Moon may not want to make any major concessions that further dent his popularity ahead of an election for parliament in April.

The Herald Business newspaper of South Korea reported Friday that Seoul was reviewing a potential increase of as much as 30% in its contribution, well below what is being sought by the Trump administration.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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