Ahn Young-joon / AP
In an escalating dispute over how much allies should pay the United States to station troops on their soil, US negotiators went on talks with South Korea in Seoul on Tuesday, as the two sides expressed very different positions and accused the other side to be unreasonable.
The Trump administration is reportedly demanding that Seoul, a key ally, contribute about $ 5 billion this year to cover the costs of the approximately 28,500 U.S. troops based in South Korea. That's more than five times what South Korea agreed to contribute earlier this year, and Seoul is pushing hard back. South Korean and US officials would not confirm the amount to NPR.
The defense cost problem puts stress that has not been seen for several years on a decades-old alliance and highlights the difficulty of putting a dollar value on the broad costs and benefits involved in military alliances.
At the heart of the issue lies the Trump administration's claim that wealthy allies, including South Korea, are "liberated" from the United States and spend too little for their own defense. Trump has suggested that US troops could be withdrawn from the Korean peninsula.
Seoul says that the topic of removing forces has not come up in negotiations, and a law passed last year by the US Congress prevents the president from reducing the troop strength in South Korea without a decision by the Secretary of Defense that such a move is in the United States. national security interest.
After Tuesday's aborted calls, Foreign Secretary negotiator James DeHart told reporters that Seoul's proposal was "not responsive" to US demands. "We shortened our participation in the talks today to give the Korean side time to rethink," he said.
DeHart's counterpart, South Korean negotiator Jeong Eun-bo, told reporters after the talks that the US had asked for a sharp increase in its contribution, "while South Korea maintains the position that our burden should be within a mutually acceptable range."
US demands have been met with a crescendo of criticism from across the Korean political spectrum.
"Seoul should wisely handle Trump's attempt to tear away allies," advised an editorial in the largely conservative daily Dong-A Ilbo. The paragraph continued to rumor that the United States, the superpower once seen as a global police force, is retiring from that role "to start a security company."
"We must admit that the United States and South Korea's alliance is not in good shape," laments Park Hwee-rhak, a defense expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.
Park is a former South Korean Army colonel, a self-described conservative and supporter of the American-South Korean alliance. He says he has long advised his government to contribute more to shared defense costs, but he also thinks the reported $ 5 billion demand is unacceptable. He adds that the United States has failed to provide a detailed breakdown and reasons for its request.
The cost of alliance can be divided into its parts: troops, equipment, and operating costs. South Korea currently covers about 40% of operating costs. It also provides ground, construction and several thousand South Korean troops to boost US forces.
The reported US $ 5 billion demand exceeds the $ 4.46 billion that the Pentagon puts as a cost of operations in South Korea in 2020.
Park argues that the United States and South Korea are not just two sides of a transaction. They are blood brothers, he says.
"We shed our blood in Vietnam and you put your blood in South Korea and Vietnam together," he says. "So we supported your country and you supported the United States without calculating what kind of benefit I can get from this support."
South Korea has sent troops to fight in Vietnam and has provided security in hot locations from Iraq and South Sudan to East Timor and Haiti.
The base of US forces abroad gives Washington the ability to project power around the world to secure commercial interests worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
"About one-third of US trade comes out of Northeast Asia," states Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst at Rand Corporation, a US government-funded think tank. "If there was a conflict in Korea, that trade would be seriously disturbed."
Allies, Bennett notes, allow the United States to justify its projection of power for its own ends.
"They send troops to a variety of places in the world that provide stability and give us the ability to say that we have a coalition that does these things," he says. "And it's not just US imperialism where we operate Abroad. "
He adds that increasing US demands may cause Seoul to cancel the purchase of F-35 fighter aircraft or other hardware, which could lead to the loss of US jobs.
Park claims that both the United States and South Korea have benefited from their But if the United States pulls out its troops, it would leave South Korea alone to meet its neighbor in the north. For the United States this may be acceptable, but "for South Koreans," he says, "it would be a life or death situation."
While the Trump administration is pushing for Seoul to reach an agreement this year, agreements still need to be ratified by South Korean lawmakers, which lawmakers will be re-elected in April next year, and while studies show that most sewing Koreans want US troops to stop, a majority opposes a sharp increase in Seoul's contribution.