U.S. Defense Chief Presses South Korea to Pay More for Troops

(Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Mark Esper said during a visit to South Korea that Seoul needed to contribute more to host U.S. troops, after President Donald Trump has asked one of America’s most important military allies to quintuple its current payment.

Esper was in is a high-stakes visit to South Korea as part of an eight-day trip through Asia. Its results could determine how well the Trump administration can keep allies Japan and South Korea together as they face threats from the likes of North Korea, and whether other countries hosting U.S. troops will face Trump’s pressure to pay far more to keep them.

“Korea is a wealthy country, and could and should pay more to offset the cost of defense,” Esper said Friday. He wanted talks finished by the end of the year with South Korea and added he has been making the same call to other allies for increased funding.

Esper -- who will continue on to Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines -- didn’t mention a specific figure in the joint news conference with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo. Jeong said both sides agreed that “the defense cost should be shared at a fair and agreeable level” and the agreement should be reached before the current pact expires.

Esper landed in Seoul with Trump demanding South Korea pay about $5 billion for the privilege of 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.

A timeline for U.S.-South Korea troop funding talks
  • Dec. 2018 - U.S. wants South Korea to double its payment and cut term of funding deal from five years to two, Chosun newspaper reports
  • February - U.S. and 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 that Trump wants countries to pay all costs and a 50% premium on top of that for the privilege of hosting
  • October - U.S. seeks nearly $5 billion from South Korea for troops, reports in South Korean media said

The request for more money isn’t sitting well in South Korea where many in President Moon Jae-in’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.

Japan Pact

The Pentagon boss was also pushing South Korea to keep alive an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan that Seoul is set to let expire on Nov. 23 due to friction with its neighbor. The U.S. has said they should look beyond their troubled ties to the security threat they all face in the region.

“The only ones who benefit from expiration of GSOMIA” and “continued friction between Seoul and Tokyo are Pyongyang and Beijing,” Esper said.

The General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, was signed by Japan and South Korea in November 2016. While the agreement doesn’t require the exchange of intelligence and both countries are part of a similar three-way pact with the U.S., the deal was seen as a breakthrough because it demonstrated the ability of Seoul and Tokyo to cooperate independently from Washington.

The South Korean Defense minister said he is seeking Esper’s help to persuade Japan to ease up on its export controls, adding “We have some time left until the expiry.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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