South Korea signs deal to pay 8% more to host US troops

US soldiers walking at a shopping zone outside the US Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on Feb 21, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - South Korea and the United States signed a formal agreement on Friday (March 8) under which the former will pay 8.2 per cent more to host American troops.

The two sides agreed that the signing of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), a fruit of tough negotiations, reflects their robust alliance, reported Korean news agency Yonhap.

"This now becomes the foundation of - one of the foundations of - the alliance, and something that the alliance will build upon to become stronger and greater," South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha was quoted as telling Washington's top envoy in Seoul, Harry Harris, after the signing ceremony in Seoul.

Last month, South Korea agreed to pay 1.04 trillion won (US$920 million) in 2019 for the operation of the 28,500-strong US Forces Korea (USFK), up from 960 billion won the previous year.

Harris said the accord represents the significance of the alliance, reported Yonhap.

"It underscores the importance and the ironclad nature of our alliance between our two great nations that have worked together and represents the sacrifices of Koreans and Americans over the decades," he said.

The cost hike for Seoul is part of the Donald Trump administration's efforts to make countries hosting US troops pay more.

Under White House direction, the administration is drawing up demands that Germany, Japan and eventually any other country hosting US troops pay the full price of American soldiers deployed on their soil - plus 50 per cent or more for the privilege of hosting them, Bloomberg reported, citing administration officials and people briefed on the matter.

In some cases, nations hosting American forces could be asked to pay five to six times as much as they do now under the "Cost Plus 50" formula.

Trump has championed the idea for months. His insistence on it almost derailed recent talks with South Korea over the status of US troops in the country when he overruled his negotiators with a note to National Security Advisor John Bolton saying, "We want cost plus 50."

Even though that demand fell short, the Trump administration had sent a deliberate message by demanding "Cost Plus 50" from South Korea first, said Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"We have a more integrated military with South Korea than with any other ally," Cha told Bloomberg. "To send this message to a front-line Cold War ally is trying to say very clearly that they want a paradigm shift with the way they do host-nation support."

The USFK Commander, General Robert Abrams, said on Friday at the SMA's signing that South Korea is an "exemplary ally" of his country.

"The signing of this Special Measures Agreement is a clear signal of this strength of the ironclad nature of our alliance," he said.

The two sides had 10 rounds of talks throughout last year led by veteran diplomats, but failed to reach a compromise mainly due to differences over the total amount of Seoul's contribution, reported Yonhap.

After previous contract, signed in 2014, expired at the end of 2018, the two sides continued negotiations through diplomatic channels, Yonhap said.

The South Korean government has completed related administrative procedures with the signing of the pact, which followed the Cabinet approval earlier this week.

It plans to submit the accord to the National Assembly next week for ratification with the aim of putting it into effect in April. The US does not need congressional ratification of the SMA.

The agreement will be valid only one year, which means the two sides will soon have to begin a new round of negotiations on splitting the USFK costs.

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