SEOUL - The United States and South Korea will begin its fourth round of negotiations over military defense cost-sharing in Washington, D.C. Tuesday after a breakdown in talks last month.
Jeong Eun-bo, South Korea’s top envoy for the negotiations, touched down in Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, on Monday ahead of the Tuesday and Wednesday talks. He expressed optimism in comments at the airport, despite the fact that U.S. negotiators cut short talks on Nov. 19 after representatives from both countries couldn’t find common ground.
"There were areas that didn't go as planned, but because the two countries still share an understanding of the South Korea-US alliance and the strengthening of the joint defense posture, I believe we will be able to produce a win-win result if we continue discussions with patience," Jeong reportedly said on Dec. 2.
There is pressure to strike a deal, with the two countries’ current cost-sharing agreement slated to expire by the end of this year. Around 28,500 U.S. troops are currently stationed in South Korea, and Seoul already agreed to increase their share of the cost burden by 8.2% last February. That brought South Korea’s total contribution to around $808.5 million — which is about half of the total cost — but now, Washington negotiators say they want even more.
During negotiations in Honolulu last October, the U.S. asked South Korea to pay about $5 billion — roughly five times the current agreed-upon amount — starting next year.
Some experts see the request as bluster, believing that the United States is simply exerting pressure on its key ally.
“I think South Korea will end up paying more than what they’re paying now, but not a lot more,” C. Harrison Kim, a North Korea expert and professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told VOA. “If the cost-sharing agreement does not change, South Korea will be forced to buy more weapons from the U.S. — that would undoubtedly happen.”
“Even as [South Korean President Moon Jae-in] is speaking with Kim, the South Korean government has to purchase THAAD missile systems, the latest fighter jets, and so forth,” Kim added. “That’s what Trump is aiming for: Either South Korea pays more, or buys more weapons.”
Most South Koreans — about 96% — are against paying more in the next defense cost-sharing agreement, according to a recent survey published by the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). In addition to paying around $800 million, South Korea also previously agreed to cover more than 90% of a $10.7 billion bill to move a U.S. military base out of Seoul, plus it currently allows the base to operate rent-free.
Analysts say the latest disagreement likely puts a strain on the U.S.-South Korea alliance, especially as the two countries approach Pyongyang’s end-of-year deadline for progress with nuclear negotiations.
"As North Korea’s provocations are likely to increase in the next two months, the U.S. and South Korea would be well advised to quickly and diplomatically resolve their differences on defense cost-sharing to demonstrate the strength of their alliance,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, wrote in an email.
For now, experts are unsure whether the Trump administration will ease up on its “America first” approach to defense cost-sharing talks.
“Instead of focusing on the U.S.’s military historical legacy on the Korean peninsula, President Trump is approaching this as a cost-benefit analysis,” Kim told VOA. “When you really get down to it, we are trying to analyze this and make sense of it, but I don’t think [President Trump] really cares too much. He just wants to pay less.”