For the past year or so the United States and South Korea have been negotiating a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA), more commonly known as cost-sharing negotiations, to determine what would be the fair amount of money that Seoul should pay for the stationing of American forces on the Korean peninsula.
Past negotiations determined not only the amount, but also the duration, of an agreement. Typically, South Korea paid almost 50% of the stationing cost under a five year agreement. “Stationing cost” was defined by excluding pay and allowances for U.S. soldiers to ensure that American soldiers are not perceived as mercenaries. This definition substantially reduced the total stationing cost.
Negotiations have always been conducted by diplomats and not by the military. In other words, this is a negotiation between the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a special envoy from the U.S. State Department and supported by the Ministry of National Defense (Korea) and the U.S. Department of Defense. Soldiers should not be fighting about where the money comes from.
From open source reporting and statements from President Trump, it seems the U.S. has decided to request all allies, not just Korea, adhere to the 50% standard. South Korea has been near the 50% mark for many years, but this did not take into account the billions of dollars of U.S. arms imports, the nearly four thousand Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) soldiers, and close to another three billion dollars of direct/indirect costs; harbor/ port/ airport entrance & exit fees, toll fees, land lease fees, water/electricity support and taxes etc.
Soldiers should not be fighting about where the money comes from
In addition, South Korea, unlike most NATO allies, spends 2.4% of its GNP on defense, with a five year plan to increase defense spending by an average of 7.5% a year.
Responsible Koreans understand that the United States provides much valued security, and also understand that the U.S. has a budget deficit.
The issue is that the Korean government was not given enough lead time to explain this issue to its own people. Here in lies some of the concerns and tensions that benefit no one – except North Korea and other regional competitors.
The Trump administration must understand that South Korea has a legislative system that needs to be persuaded, and that the Moon administration’s challenge is figuring out how to convince a very hostile opposition.
For the most part this hostility is not against the United States or U.S. Forces Korea, but it borne out of polarized politics.
It will take time for South Korea to understand that the U.S. is negotiating with not only with the ROK but with 30 other countries. North Korea is taking the opportunity and is accusing the U.S. of pillaging South Korea.
The first question is what this growing problem may lead to. The real problem is this is a spat, rather than two mature nations conducting negotiations. There are differences in views but this is not a divorce, rather we are trying to figuring out what to share to stay together.
Unfortunately, many see this situation as the U.S. demanding more money and Korea refusing. This is not the case – the two sides will likely soon come to an agreement that suits both sides.
PROSPECTS FOR TROOP WITHDRAWAL
In the meantime, a great deal of speculation, including fears that Trump will order a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea, is causing concern. Media reporting seems to focus on friction between the two nations and concerns that a reduction of U.S. Forces stationed in Korea could occur – and Trump’s previous statement on the campaign trail seem to give credence to these concerns.
Troop withdrawal is not the answer: it won’t save money for the U.S. and it will cause destabilization on the Korean peninsula.
Trust is more important than money
Whatever emerges from the negotiations, the truth is that the alliance will be maintained: it is in the best interests of both South Korea and the U.S. The real challenge is that the alliance must have the finesse to ensure that the public understand the advantages of an agreement as well as the cost.
As for North Korea, it must see this situation as a propaganda bonanza. Easy to distort and simple to manipulate, talking about money can always be turned into fighting about money.
The South Korean government is focused on providing stable conditions so that, alongside the ROK military, the United States forces in Korea can do their job. Media reports that Seoul is interested in locking in a three year deal that would come closer to the one billion dollar goal for the U.S. This seems like a good start.
The key risk is that both nation’s negotiators have their marching orders and that unintended press leaks do not help at this sensitive stage of negotiations. Because there is more interest in South Korea, media here is reporting on these negotiations at a far greater volume than the United States. This could easily lead U.S. negotiators to assume that Korean negotiators are using public opinion as a tool.
South Korea negotiators should exercise greater caution, and U.S. negotiators should have more trust in their Korean counterparts. Trust is more important than money.
The bottom line is that United States Forces Korea (USFK) must be provided with sufficient support to guarantee a stable environment to conduct its mission. Secondly, the South Korean people need time to form a common understanding regarding the benefits of USFK and the need for an increase in spending.
Finally, and most importantly, the integrity of the alliance must be protected.
In the end, Presidents Trump and Moon must come to an understanding that their representatives have done as much as they can. It will be up to the leaders to fill the gap. The buck does really stop here.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Exercise Cobra Gold 2014 [Image 9 of 14] by DVIDSHUB on 2014-02-13 11:37:43