S. Korea, US to begin defense cost-sharing talks in near future: senior Seoul official

Flags of South Korea and the United States flutter outside of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul,  in this April 25, 2023 file photo. AP-Yonhap

Flags of South Korea and the United States flutter outside of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul, in this April 25, 2023 file photo. AP-Yonhap

South Korea and the United States will likely hold talks “in the near future” about a new defense cost-sharing deal, a senior Seoul official said Wednesday, as the current six-year agreement is set to expire at the end of next year.

The move comes amid concerns that should former President Donald Trump be reelected, he could drive a hard bargain over the 12th Special Measures Agreement (SMA) for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) in a way that could cause friction in the alliance.

“Usually, it takes more than a year to conclude negotiations (on a new SMA). So naturally, there should be a move sometime this year (toward negotiating a deal),” the official said in a meeting with reporters. “In the near future, South Korea and the United States will discuss the defense cost issue.”

During Trump’s presidency, the SMA negotiation was a major bone of contention as he demanded a hefty rise in South Korea’s share of the cost for the USFK. He reportedly called for a fivefold increase to $5 billion.

Since 1991, Seoul has partially shouldered costs under the SMA for Korean USFK workers; the construction of military installations, such as barracks, and training, educational, operational and communications facilities; and other logistical support.

Regarding Japan’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea, the official said Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul and his U.S. and Japanese counterparts, Antony Blinken and Yoko Kamikawa, touched on the issue during their trilateral meeting on the margins of the G20 foreign ministerial gathering in Brazil last week.

“(Cho) delivered (Seoul’s) basic stance that all contacts with North Korea, including the contact between the North and Japan, should proceed through close (cooperation) on the prior sharing of relevant information, and that all contacts should proceed in a way that contributes to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.

“All shared the understanding (on the view),” he added.

The official also commented on a news report that South Korea’s top nuclear envoy, Kim Gunn, resigned to join the ruling People Power Party just weeks ahead of the April parliamentary elections.

His surprise departure raised concerns that it could undermine Seoul’s policy on North Korea and its coordination with his counterparts in the U.S. and other countries.

“It was a personal choice and it would have little effect (on policy implementation),” the official said.

Lee Jun-il, the deputy nuclear envoy, will serve as the chief nuclear negotiator until a new head is appointed, according to Seoul’s foreign ministry.

The ministry will review the appointment at the earliest date possible, it added.

The official also noted that First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Hong-kyun has experience as Seoul’s top nuclear envoy.

“So there isn’t any big problem if we transition to an interim system,” he said. (Yonhap)

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