The present relationship between Seoul and Washington is plagued with problems, and recently the amount of money South Korea spends on U.S. military forces stationed in its territory has become the most pressing one. However, in the ROK these increased tensions are associated with Moon Jae-in’s attempts to follow an independent foreign policy course, especially with regards to its fairly long-standing conflict with Japan.
US forces have been stationed in South Korea for quite some time and their presence is viewed as a guarantee of security. However, the times when the ROK badly needed help from the U.S. military are long gone. At present, although the DPRK has the fourth largest armed force (in terms of size) in the world, with South Korea taking sixth or seventh place in the rankings, Seoul spends 25 times as much on its military needs as Pyongyang.
In the current environment, the likelihood of an invasion of the ROK by North Korea or a repeat of the Korean War is slim to none. And Donald Trump’s approach further complicates this issue. The U.S. President believes that ensuring peace and stability in South Korea with the help U.S. forces does not come cheap for the United States, and a rich country such as the ROK should pay more.
The USA has also demanded that other NATO nations including Japan (and South Korea) increase their military spending.
In 2018, the United States and the ROK engaged in negotiations on this issue. The talks were partially successful. Seoul agreed to pay 8.2% more in comparison to the previous year ($990 million to be exact, i.e. practically the same as before). However, the United States originally requested a sum of $1.25 billion per year which was 1.5 times the sum (equivalent to $860 million) paid prior to the negotiations. And the agreement signed at the end of the talks was for just 1 year instead of 5, and as early as spring of 2019, the U.S. administration began to talk about Seoul paying substantially more in subsequent years.
Starting at the end of July 2019, there was talk that the United States would ask the ROK to increase its spending towards defense up to $5 billion. And even South Korean media outlets began reporting it was highly likely that Seoul’s contributions would rise substantially. In South Korea, the assumption is that this issue is also linked to U.S. estimates of how much it costs to keep its troops in the ROK. The U.S. Defense Department has forecast (as of March 2019) that it will cost US$ 4.46 billion to station troops, other essential personnel and their families in South Korea in the fiscal year which will end on 30 September 2020. During the 2019 financial year, the price tag was US$ 4.43 billion and in 2018, US$ 4.32 billion.
On 8 August, Donald Trump tweeted that Seoul had agreed to pay Washington a considerably larger sum of money than before in order to protect itself from the threat posed by North Korea. In South Korea, the announcement was immediately called into question as the negotiations on this issue had not even started. After all, the U.S. leader is in the habit of making grandiose statements that often reflect his own personal views and not necessarily the reality.
On 9 August, Donald Trump once again raised the issue of sharing the security costs between Seoul and Washington more equitably. According to the American President, the United States needed to recoup its costs, which is what he had said to the South Korean side. The U.S. leader also stated that he had never liked staging joint military drills with South Korean armed forces because it was incredibly expensive to do so.
On 12 August, during a fundraising event for his reelection campaign, Donald Trump said that it was easier to receive US$ 1 billion from the ROK than to get US$ 114 from a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn. The American President also asked why the United States needed to spend money on ensuring security in South Korea when the latter produced “great TVs” and had a “thriving economy”.
Seoul seemed so offended by the comments that South Korea’s Anglophone media outlets posed the following question “Does U.S. President Donald Trump consider South Korea his private ATM, from which he can take any amount of money at any time?” The report added that it was “also disturbing to see the U.S. trying to suck up as much money as possible from a country which it calls an ally”. Another article published by The Korea Times noted “the cost sharing talks” were “a test of Trump’s insistence that U.S. allies should pay more” for their own defense, and that “one of the best-case scenarios” was “to keep delaying the start of the negotiation between the two sides, and patiently prepare for the dialogue as thoroughly as possible.”
Shortly afterwards, South Korean news outlets reported that instead of a government official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of National Defense, Jeong Eun-bo from the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, would be responsible for the negotiations on sharing the costs for stationing U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula. After all, Donald Trump had stated that the upcoming talks would take into account more so practical economic considerations versus the relationship between the two allies. Hence, purely from a financial standpoint, this time around, the United States would demand US$ 4.8 billion from the ROK to cover all the expenses associated with ensuring security on the Korean Peninsula, including the costs of joint military drills. Apparently, this is how much the USA spends on such needs.
On 24 September, the 2-day negotiations between U.S. and ROK officials on bearing the costs of stationing U.S. troops in South Korea began in Seoul. Chang Won-sam from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who had taken part in talks that led to the 10th agreement on sharing defense costs, represented ROK interests while his colleague James DeHart, the American ones. By the second day of the negotiations, the two sides had stated their bargaining positions, and according to South Korean media outlets, Chang Won-sam refused to accept the terms of his U.S. counterparts because (as he said) reasonable figures and sharing costs in a fair manner had to be the topic of discussions. Chang Won-sam reminded his American counterparts that Seoul purchased weapons from Washington and also made substantial monetary contributions towards construction of U.S. military bases.
In the end, James DeHart and Chang Won-sam agreed to continue the talks with the view of reaching a fair and optimal solution. There were no reports in the media about the amounts of money requested by Americans. However, their demands must have been substantial on account of the fact that Jeong Eun-bo became the head of the South Korean negotiation team during the next discussion.
From 22 to 24 October, the second round of talks between James DeHart and Jeong Eun-bo took place in Hawaii, but just as the first, it was unsuccessful. South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha stated that the United States was “making far more excessive demands.” She “declined to comment on details over the negotiation, only reiterating the government’s general position that it would renew the contract on the basis of fairness”.
Still, on 28 October, a representative of the South Korean side familiar with the talks told journalists that the ROK and the United States had narrowed the gap between their bargaining positions and had agreed to continue their work with the view of reaching an agreement amenable to both sides. However, this person refused to provide any details about the concrete areas progress had been made in.
On 31 October, in an interview with Voice of America (VOA, a radio broadcasting network), Senator Jack Reed from the U. S. Senate Committee on Armed Services said that members of the lower house of the U. S. Congress demanded that Donald Trump and his administration seek a fair cost-sharing agreement with the ROK. Apparently, the U.S. leadership needed to take into account the fact that South Korea was an invaluable ally that continued to make substantial contributions towards resolving the dispute with North Korea and ensuring joint security measures were in place. In addition, the ROK had already agreed to cover a significant proportion of costs associated with expanding the Camp Humphreys army base in Pyeongtaek, in Gyeonggi Province.
By that time, more details regarding the October negotiations began to appear in South Korean media outlets. According to these reports, the United States demanded that the South Korean side cover not only the salaries of ROK workers employed on U.S. military bases, and transportation and construction of military facilities costs but also expenses associated with stationing U.S. troops and housing their families in the ROK; with staging joint military drills, and with keeping American strategic resources on the Korean Peninsula temporarily in case of a rise in tensions. All of this added to up to US$ 5 billion per year. Hence, these talks were some of the toughest negotiations since the time the U.S.-South Korea Status of Forces Agreement (regarding the U.S. troops in the ROK) had been approved and enacted.
In response to these developments, 17 members of left-wing university student bodies broke into the home of Harry B. Harris, the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, to protest U.S. pressure, and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) “proposed a resolution to the National Assembly calling for fair negotiations.” Floor party leader Rep. Lee In-young said that “over 95 percent of the South Korean public” opposed the idea of paying more to the United States.
The parliamentarian also “pledged to use the Assembly’s veto power against the ‘unrealistic’ U.S. request.” Soon afterwards, he left for the United States to meet with high-level officials from the White House and the U.S. government in order to convey to them that the National Assembly was generally in agreement on the fact that a stronger alliance between the United States and South Korea was essential. However, Lee In-young’s visit was not successful. U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun listened to the parliamentarians and responded that the South Korea-U.S. alliance needed to be “renewed”. In the opinion of ROK media outlets, the U.S. official’s statements could indicate that before South Korea had been under U.S. protection but now that Seoul and Washington had become equal partners, the former needed to cover its fair share of military expenses.
On 16 November 2019, 500 activists from 50 civic groups took to the streets to participate in a rally near the U.S. Embassy aimed at putting “an end to the subordinate relationship”. The demonstrators stated: “The United States is conspicuously showing its true intention to pressure Korea with the Korea-U.S. military alliance, while being indifferent to peace on the peninsula”.
On 19 November, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper chose not to give a direct answer to the question on whether or not the U.S. troops would be withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula if Seoul and Washington failed to agree on the best way to share defense costs. This statement was made at the time of the third round of negotiations, which was held from 18 to 19 November in Seoul. Unfortunately, the two sides did not reach an agreement, and afterwards a separate conference was, in fact, organized, during which James DeHart said that Washington was expecting to resume the talks when Seoul was “prepared to cooperate on the basis of mutual trust”. In response, Jeong Eun-bo pointed out that South Korea would “stick to its principle of paying additional costs only under equitable and fair guidelines.”
Afterwards, members of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea proposed an idea: to use ROK’s indirect financial contributions as leverage in the talks. During a telephone interview with the Korea Times, one of the parliamentarians said that Seoul had made significant direct as well as indirect contributions in many areas. For example, South Korea allows U.S. forces to use its harbors, railways and land free of charge. As of 2015, Americans had saved 3.5 trillion won on such expenses. Seoul could also include waivers of or reductions in utility payments that American military personnel take advantage of when using ROK ports, airports, roads and railways in its indirect contributions.
On 19 November, the third round of talks on sharing next year costs of stationing U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula was held. The discussion lasted less than 2 hours (and according to some reports, just half an hour), and afterwards, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the negotiations had not gone as planned. He was actually referring to the fact that the U.S. delegation ended the talks unilaterally, left Seoul and then organized an unscheduled press conference where Americans laid all the responsibility at South Korea’s doorstep.
According to Jeong Eun-bo, the American side insisted on a significant increase in South Korea’s contributions towards defense and thereby, the addition of new clauses in their agreement. The ROK delegation again reiterated that the payments needed to be kept at reasonable levels for both sides within the framework of the agreements that had been in effect for 28 years. Due to such a drastic difference in views, the third round of talks completely broke down.
On 25 November, the Realmeter polling agency reported results of a survey it had conducted. It showed that 68.8% of South Koreans were opposed to U.S. demands for increased contributions by the ROK towards defense (in general), including towards the stationing of U.S. troops. Only 22.3% of the questionnaire participants believed Seoul needed to yield to U.S. pressure because of the possibility that Washington would reduce its military presence on the Korean Peninsula.
On 26 November, Scott Snyder, an expert on the Korean Peninsula issues at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), highlighted that the dispute between the ROK and the United States on sharing defense costs more equitably was a highly unusual occurrence. By creating additional tensions, this disagreement could have an effect on the negotiations with the DPRK, the policy on China and the faith placed on alliances with the United States. In his opinion, the talks failed because of unreasonable demands made by Donald Trump’s administration.
On the very same day, on 26 November, Donald Trump again stated that the USA had spent enormous amounts of money on defending rich nations, and that previous Presidents used the American middle class as a piggy bank in order to fund pointless international projects.
The fourth round of negotiations took place in the United States on 4 December. Before the talks, Jeong Eun-bo had told journalists about preparations of concrete proposal for the U.S.side, and had also pointed out that the costs of stationing U.S. armed forces on the Korean Peninsula had to be shared equitably. Donald Trump responded in kind and also noted that Seoul and Washington needed to make fair contributions towards defense.
In the meantime, Walter Sharp, a former Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, criticized the President’s stance. During a seminar in Washington, organized by the Korea Economic Institute of America (a non-profit organization), he said that “the U.S. should not give up its alliance for a couple of dollars”. According to Walter Sharp, South Korea made the biggest contribution towards defense relative to its gross domestic product (GDP) out of all of Washington’s allies. He also said that if the U.S. wanted “to properly evaluate the value of its alliance with South Korea, the evaluation should include Seoul’s contribution to UN peacekeeping missions in Iraq and Afghanistan”. In fact, the ROK was the second largest contributor to coalition troops in Iraq after the United States, but their armed forces were not part of military operations (they only made their fame in South Korean TV series later on).
The fourth series of negotiations was also unsuccessful as anticipated by sceptics. The following round will take place in Seoul in December.
The author has chosen to end his article on this pessimistic note, as we await the final “episode”. Still, at this point in time, we could risk assuming that despite the fervent speeches, subsequent events will follow the GSOMIA path. And afterwards, Moon Jae-in will explain to his people that in reality, this happened to be a diplomatic victory for the ROK made possible by the leadership’s shrewd plan.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.