U.S., S.Korea Must Reach Troop Agreement Before Kim-Trump Summit

      January 24, 2019 13:06

      Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has told lawmakers there remain "huge" differences in talks between Seoul and Washington over splitting the cost of keeping the U.S. Forces Korea here. An American government official told the South Korean government that U.S. President Donald Trump's stance remains steadfast that either Seoul pay more or face prospects of a troop withdrawal. U.S. troop cost-sharing talks have always been tricky, but sticking points used to be resolved quietly behind the scenes. But now, the differences are being voiced openly to gain public support, exposing the growing fault lines between the two allies. But just ahead of a second U.S.-North Korea summit, with a volatile U.S. president given to rash decisions at the helm, it is the worst time to sow uncertainty over the USFK presence here.

      Last year, Korea shouldered W960.2 billion or about half of the cost of maintaining 28,500 American troops here (US$1=W1,128). The two sides have met 10 times so far this year to decide how to split the cost but failed to narrow their differences. The last meeting ended without even setting a date for the next one. Seoul told the U.S. that the South Korean public will not be able to accept paying more than W1 trillion in taxpayer's money. Citing "orders from the top," the U.S. then raised South Korea's share to US$1.2 billion but shortened the validity of the agreement from five years to just one. Washington said any amount less than $1 billion is unacceptable. U.S. President Donald Trump views the bilateral alliance purely from a financial standpoint and has often accused South Korea of getting a free ride in an appeal to his core voter base.

      But the second U.S.-North Korea summit is set for late February, and Seoul and Washington are still haggling. Trump will try everything during his next meeting with Kim to get some sort of deal he can sell to the American public. North Korea's demands for an easing of sanctions counters UN resolutions and are difficult to realize, so Trump could instead use the U.S. troop presence in South Korea to bargain with Kim. South Korea cannot rely on an American law that prohibits the U.S. from reducing its troop levels here to less than 22,000. If 4,500 2nd Infantry Division soldiers are recalled back to the U.S. and no replacements are sent, it still has more than 22,000 personnel but loses its punch without ground combat troops. A failure to agree on upkeep cost sharing only gives Trump a chance to consider a dangerous gamble. The problem must urgently be solved to prevent a worst-case scenario.

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