We can recall how one of the long-standing problems in the relations between Seoul and Washington under Trump was the question of how much the Republic of Korea would pay for American troops to be deployed on its territory. It is worth reiterating that by the autumn Korea was ready to pay 13% more than what had been set, while the United States demanded at least 50%.
In addition, in the US the rumor was constantly circulating that Donald Trump was going to withdraw American troops and bring them back home (including from the Republic of Korea), and that something had to be done about that. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces Mark Milley noted, Americans are expressing interest in why American troops are in Korea and Japan, and why their wealthy allies cannot pay for their own defense and/or cannot independently provide for their own security. Former US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell also claimed that Donald Trump wanted to withdraw American troops “from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Japan, and Germany,” underscoring that Americans are tired of paying too much for the defense of other countries.
Accordingly, bogus stories that Trump was going to withdraw troops if the Koreans did not pay, or that the military had proposed another troop reduction plan to him, periodically arose and also had to be periodically refuted by either the commander of US troops on the Korean Peninsula, the Pentagon, or the White House.
Incidentally, these rumors often originated from the conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo, which we well know from the fake stories about the DPRK, or the anti-Trump books that were written for the upcoming election, such as The Madman Theory: Trump Takes on the World, written by CNN’s chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto, or Rage by Bob Woodward.
In response to Trump’s actions right before the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, the US Senate passed a resolution that emphasizes the importance of a military alliance between the Republic of Korea and the US. In particular, it notes that relations between the two allies, which have been linked by blood since the first day of the war on June 25, 1950, have turned into a close partnership in the field of security, and deploying US soldiers on South Korean soil is in the national interests of the United States.
In addition, Democratic members of the US Congress have put forward a bill that gives the legislative branch the opportunity to prevent the president from changing the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries. The National Defense Act for Fiscal Year 2021 also placed restrictions on the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea. It is possible, but no earlier than 90 days after the Secretary of Defense presents evidence that this step is in the interests of US national security, will not cause significant damage to the security of US allies in the region, and that the Secretary of Defense has held consultations with the allies, including South Korea and Japan. In addition, that reduction should be commensurate with a decline in the threat posed by North Korea. Trump vetoed the law, but Congress overrode that.
On June 3, 2020, the problem was resolved of more than 4,000 South Korean workers at US military bases in the country, who were previously sent on unpaid leave in the wake of negotiations that had ground to a halt. Seoul at first offered to pay the workers 200 million USD and then deduct it later on from the amount agreed upon.
The results of a survey taken from June 23-25 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs attested to the fact that 90% of the respondents stated they support the alliance between South Korea and the United States. And 82% of the respondents were fully or partially confident in the US commitment to its promise to protect South Korea.
On August 5, in an interview with Fox News, Donald Trump named resolving the issue of equitably distributing the burden for joint defense spending as one of the high-priority tasks that he would devote his attention to if re-elected: “I’m taking business and I’m taking trade back from these other countries that have ripped us off for years, our allies also, have been ripping us off for years. Everybody says they’re wonderful allies. I said yes, but they’ve got to pay their bills.”
On August 20, 2020, Jeong Eun-bo, South Korea’s chief negotiator in defense cost-sharing talks, and his new counterpart, Donna Welton, held another telephone call but no significant progress was made.
On October 14, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper highlighted the importance of what he called a more equitable sharing of costs to maintain US troops in South Korea.
On October 26, the US and South Korea issued a joint communiqué following annual talks between their defense agency directors, but the statement did not include the usual US commitment to maintain the current levels of its troops. This has prompted speculation that the US may be considering cutting its troop presence, but Seoul’s official response was that the United States has not made a commitment, since it is flexible in adjusting its overseas presence to reflect the security situation.
On October 28, Mark Knapper, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Korea and Japan, indicated that the absence of a phrase committing the United States to maintaining troop levels in South Korea in a recent joint statement should not be taken as a threat.
On November 30, South Korea and the United States held another round of negotiations. The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Jeong Eun-bo and Donna Welton evaluated the extent to which the document was ready, and agreed to “cooperate closely to quickly reach a fair and mutually acceptable agreement.”
By that time, Biden had already been elected, and the position his administration took on this issue was the exact opposite. For example, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman stated in the summer that Washington should not argue with South Korea over how joint military spending is distributed.
On February 5, Jeong Eun-bo and Donna Welton announced that the Republic of Korea and the United States would work to wind up negotiations quickly to help strengthen their bilateral alliance and defense capabilities.
By this time, a bogus story from CNN had appeared, citing five sources, that stated the agreement could be signed within a few weeks. It would be “a long-term agreement that increases Seoul’s contribution to cover the presence of US troops by around 13 percent.” In addition, CNN reported that the agreement could include “mandated increases in South Korea’s defense budget”, and the purchase of certain military equipment by Seoul.
It is typical that right at this time, when describing the negotiation process, a new lead-in appeared: “In March last year, the parties tentatively agreed to increase the South Korean share of expenses by 13%. However, it was not possible to reach a final agreement due to the disagreement with Donald Trump, who then served as President of the United States.” The demand for a fivefold increase was trumpeted, and “the order was given to forget” the fact that ultimately Washington demanded an increase of 50%.
On March 5-7, 2021, the ninth round of negotiations took place in Washington, and on March 8 Jeong Eun-bo announced that South Korea and the United States had reached an equitable agreement, “that is reasonable and fair and is acceptable to both sides”.
Jeong stated that details of the new agreement could be made public in less than two weeks, saying it would most likely be initialed, or even signed, before US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visit South Korea. Until then, it must first go through internal review by the respective governments involved.
Spokesperson for the US Department of State Ned Price stated that the new agreement would be valid for six years, and the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs also reported that on March 10. The South Korean share increases by 13.9%, which is virtually what Seoul had suggested, amounting to 1,183,300,000,000 won (1,038,000,000 USD). However, starting in 2022 this amount will increase annually in proportion to the growth experienced by the South Korean defense budget for the previous year. This means that next year the indicator will increase by 5.4%. In addition, Seoul’s share of the wages paid to Korean personnel working at US military bases across the Korean Peninsula will rise from 75% to 87%.
Responding to the question about whether the new US administration is putting forth less stringent requirements than the Trump administration, Ned Price replied that South Korea is a US ally, and the American side will never put forward demands that could interfere with reinforcing that alliance.
Besides this, Jeong Eun-bo rejected suggestions that the new agreement could stipulate that Seoul procure American weapons systems, specifying that the agreement outlining special measures solely regulates the status of American troops on the Korean Peninsula.
On March 18th, the Republic of Korea and the US initialed the agreement. The document was signed by Jeong Eun-bo, the head of the South Korean delegation at the talks on drafting the agreement, and Robert Rapson, the Chargé d’Affaires ad interim at US Embassy Seoul. The ceremony was attended by the South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chung Eui-yong, Minister of Defense Suh Wook, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and head of the Pentagon Lloyd Austin. The agreement will enter into force as soon as it is ratified by the South Korean National Assembly.
So is that it – is everything done and dusted? – No, since as an editorial article in the Korea Times pointed out, “it is still doubtful whether the agreement is fair and transparent”. But rather “Concerns are growing that South Korea might be caught in the rivalry between the US, which is Korea’s traditional ally, and China, its largest trading partner. Thus, Seoul and Washington should step up cooperation to develop their alliance into a broader partnership to promote their mutual interest and co-prosperity.”
Some South Korean experts also believe that while Korea and the United States have finally struck a deal, Seoul cannot just sit back idly and take delight in it, since it is highly likely to face demands from Washington to play a clearly defined role in a US-led, anti-China coalition. This could be Korea’s accession to Quad Plus, the Clean Network program, or the so-called semiconductor alliance that was created to try to counter the technological pressure coming from China. It is less likely that the Republic of Korea will be forced to buy American military equipment. This is the position taken by Shin Beom-chul, the director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, and Kim Yeoul-soo, chief of the Security Strategy Office at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs.
But it is not yet known whether the signed agreement had any additional classified protocols, since it is clear that the policy of “restoring alliances” according to Biden will involve South Korea’s active participation in projects run by the United States. And therefore the next article on this topic will be devoted to military cooperation between South Korea and the United States.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.