SEOUL - The United States and South Korea failed to reach a deal on how to split the cost of the U.S. military presence, South Korean officials said Wednesday, just days before the current agreement is set to expire.
South Korean and U.S. negotiators "broadened their understanding" of each other’s positions during two days of talks that ended Wednesday, but must be prepared for another round of negotiations in January, South Korea’s foreign ministry said.
The United States had reportedly demanded that South Korea pay five times its current amount for the cost of the approximately 28,000 troops that are stationed in South Korea. South Korean officials dismissed the demand as unreasonable.
In an interview with the South Korean media, James DeHart, the top U.S. negotiator signaled flexibility, insisting Washington is "no longer focused" on its initial demand.
"The figure will be different from our initial proposal and probably different from what we've heard from the Korean side so far. So we will find that point of agreement," Dehart told reporters, according to the Yonhap news agency. "[$5 billion] is not a number that we are currently focused on in the negotiations."
DeHart also said that South Korean weapons purchases from the U.S. are an "important consideration" for the talks, Yonhap reported.
U.S. and South Korean negotiators have held several rounds of talks this year, but appeared far apart as the December 31 deadline approaches. In November, the U.S. cut short talks in Seoul, complaining South Korea was "not responsive" to U.S. demands for "equitable burden-sharing."
The situation has created unusual friction in a key U.S. alliance. The timing is also crucial — the expiration date of the current cost-sharing deal coincides with North Korea’s end-of-year deadline for the United States to provide more concessions in nuclear talks.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who has said the United States gets "nothing" from the current arrangements, has in the past been willing to use North Korea tensions as leverage in his negotiations with Seoul.
In some ways, the situation is similar to last year, when Washington and Seoul could not reach a defense cost-sharing agreement until February. South Korea eventually agreed to pay $925 million — an 8% increase from the previous year. The deal retroactively covered the previous weeks. A similar arrangement may be necessary this year.
Trump has for decades accused South Korea and other allies of taking advantage of the United States. At a May rally in Florida, Trump said a certain country was "rich as hell and probably doesn't like us too much." The comments were widely seen as referring to South Korea. Trump has also reportedly used an Asian accent to mock South Korea over the issue.
According to a newly published memoir, Trump told his national security team in 2018 that it would be an "okay deal" if South Korea paid $60 billion a year. South Korea's entire military budget in 2018 was $43 billion.
The situation has created animosity in some South Korean circles. In recent weeks, small groups of anti-U.S. protesters have gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, including some who have destroyed posters with the face of U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris. In October, a group of protesters broke into Harris’ residential compound, carrying signs about the cost-sharing talks.
Although most South Korean officials continue to stress the vitality of the alliance, some have begun to complain. Last month, a senior adviser to South Korea's president told VOA that Trump is underestimating the value of U.S. troops in the region, which he says underpin U.S. global dominance.
"Trump may be a real estate expert, but he doesn't seem to understand much about international politics," said former South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-Hyun, who advises South Korean President Moon Jae-in on unification issues.
Despite rejecting Trump's cost-sharing demands, a broad majority (92 percent) of South Koreans support the alliance with the United States, according to a poll this week by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
But the poll suggested that 68 percent of South Koreans don’t want Seoul to meet the U.S. cost-sharing demands. Another 26% say South Korea should refuse to pay if the talks fail, it said.
South Korea’s government rejects Trump’s notion that it doesn’t contribute enough toward the cost of the U.S. troops, insisting it pays almost half of the total cost of $2 billion. That doesn’t include the expense of rent-free land for U.S. military bases, Seoul says.
South Korea is also one of the biggest buyers of U.S. weapons. In 2017, South Korea spent 2.6% of its gross domestic product on military expenditures, according to World Bank data. That is a bigger percentage than any NATO member, except for the United States.