|Chang Won-sam, Korea's top negotiator in defense cost sharing negotiations signs an agreement with his U.S. counterpart Timothy Betts, a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of State, after reaching a provisional consensus on the renewal of the Seoul-Washington Special Measures Agreement this year, at the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sunday. / Yonhap|
By Lee Min-hyung
South Korea will face growing pressure to bear more of the cost for the upkeep of the United States Forces Korea (USFK), as the recent Seoul-Washington Special Measures Agreement (SMA) is only valid for a year.
Seoul wanted to renew the contract at longer intervals in consideration of intensifying U.S. pressure for it to pay more in defense cost sharing for the 28,500 U.S. troops here
However, this did not happen with Seoul and Washington signing a provisional one-year agreement Sunday on the renewal of the defense sharing contract. Under the 2019 SMA, the South will pay 1.04 trillion won ($923.13 million) and will have to renegotiate the deal next year.
Last year, Seoul contributed 960.2 billion won to the SMA. Given that the U.S. urged the South to pay more than 1.44 trillion won as its initial demand for this year, critics say the cost for 2019 is quite reasonable. But under the new one-year accord, Washington is likely to continue pressing Seoul to increase its payment next year.
This is the first time Seoul has signed a one-year defense cost sharing agreement. Both sides had renewed the SMA every two to five years since they started sharing cost sharing for USFK maintenance in 1991.
Due to the one-year timeframe, Seoul and Washington will soon begin negotiations to discuss next year's cost sharing SMA.
Taking into account the months of discord before signing the latest agreement, the two are likely to follow a similar pattern in negotiations which will begin in the next few months.
Experts argue that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is in charge of negotiations for the SMA, should take various factors into account to tighten the cooperative relationship with the U.S.
"First and foremost, the government needs to do its best to resolve the ongoing affairs on denuclearization of North Korea in a peaceful way," Shin Beom-chul, a senior director of the research division at Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said Monday.
This will help South Korea reduce defense costs for things such as the unscheduled deployment of U.S. strategic weapons due to possible military provocations by the North, he said.
The two Koreas have been in a state of rapid reconciliation for about a year, with the North expressing gestures for peace and nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula.
Against the rare peace mood on the peninsula, Seoul and Washington are on track to suspend or reduce the scale of their joint military exercises.
Shin went on to say the South should approach the defense cost sharing negotiations in a way to build a win-win relationship with the U.S.
"Seoul should adopt a long-term perspective when negotiating with Washington."
For example, trade friction between Korea and the U.S. can have a negative impact when they hold talks on renewing the defense cost sharing deal.
"South Korea should seek to build a virtuous cycle in relations with the U.S. If Seoul makes concessions in some parts of negotiations, this will bring positive impacts on others."
As both defense and economic ties are important for the two countries, they need to continue finding the middle ground that benefits both sides, he said.
"It is important for the South to seek to reduce the cost burden in the upcoming negotiations, but much more crucial is not to aggravate the overall Seoul-Washington relationship," he concluded.