SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea and the United States struck a deal Sunday to increase Seoul's contribution for the cost of the American military presence on its soil.
Under the agreement, South Korea will contribute about $924 million this year to help cover the expense of stationing 28,500 U.S. troops in the country. That is an 8.2 percent increase from last year, when South Korea paid about $850 million, or roughly 40 percent of the cost of the deployment.
The preliminary one-year deal, known as the Special Measures Agreement, replaces a five-year pact. President Donald Trump has insisted that South Korea and other allies shoulder more of the cost of maintaining U.S. bases on their soil.
The new deal is subject to parliamentary approval because it requires spending South Korean taxpayers' money, but Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha expressed optimism that it would be passed.
"I think the response so far has been quite positive," she said. "Of course there are some points of criticism as well, and we will have to deal with them, but I think at this point we were able to close the gap on the total amount."
The deal does not need U.S. congressional approval, according to the South Korean Foreign Ministry.
The agreement was signed in Seoul on Sunday by the chief South Korean negotiator, Chang Won-sam, and his American counterpart, Timothy Betts. The two sides held 10 rounds of negotiations last year, failing to reach agreement before the previous deal expired at the end of 2018.
Both sides agreed to set up a working group to handle cost-sharing negotiations in the future, adding that if no new agreement is reached by the end of this year, "to prevent the absence of an agreement, the two sides can extend the previous agreement upon mutual consent."
The South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Washington had withdrawn its earlier demand that South Korea provide "operational support," helping to pay the costs of the U.S. soldiers, aircraft carriers and warplanes used in joint military exercises with the South.
The statement also said the two countries reaffirmed the need for a "stable" U.S. military deployment amid the "rapidly changing situation on the Korean Peninsula," and that the U.S. had stressed its commitment to the alliance and its current number of troops.
South Koreans had feared that Trump might propose a withdrawal or reduction of U.S. troops in South Korea as a bargaining chip during his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which is set to take place Feb. 27-28 in Hanoi, Vietnam.
North Korea has long campaigned for the troops' withdrawal, arguing that the U.S. military threat had forced it to develop nuclear weapons. At the Vietnam meeting, Trump is hoping for verifiable progress toward denuclearizing North Korea.
Won Yoo-chul, a conservative lawmaker in South Korea, said the two sides had reached a "wise" and reasonable compromise.
"It is fortunate that the deal was reached before the upcoming Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam, so that the troops card is off the table," he said. "Defense-cost sharing is an issue between us two allies, not a bargaining chip with North Korea."
Trump said in a Feb. 3 interview on CBS' Face the Nation that he had no plans to withdraw troops from South Korea. During his election campaign, Trump suggested he could pull back troops from South Korea and Japan unless they took on a greater share of the financial burdens of supporting U.S. soldiers deployed there.
Conservative South Korean commentators have said it is worth paying more for U.S. troops to keep Trump from withdrawing them. But progressives, including members of South Korean president Moon Jae-in's governing party, are sensitive to any impression that the Americans are bullying their country.
"Trump is not the United States," Bae Myung-bok, a senior columnist for the daily JoongAng Ilbo, wrote last month, urging South Korea not to give in to Washington's demands.
Won, a member of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, warned that the short-term nature of the deal could cause friction.
"With renegotiation every year, the two sides will go through a standoff each time, which will look bad for the alliance," he said. "The alliance between two countries should not be approached from an economic perspective alone."
S. KOREA'S CONTRIBUTIONS
The 8.2 percent increase falls short of the initial U.S. demand. South Korean media earlier reported that Trump wanted South Korea to double its spending for the U.S. military deployment, then scaled that back to an even $1 billion -- an increase of more than 17 percent.
Seoul's Foreign Ministry said the U.S. had called for a sharp increase in South Korean spending but didn't elaborate.
However, the increase is a concession for Seoul. When South Korea signed its previous cost-sharing deal in 2014, it agreed to a 5.8 percent increase over 2013. Under that deal, South Korea's contribution increased 1 percent each year from 2015 to 2018, in keeping with domestic inflation rates.
Not counted as part of South Korea's contribution to the shared defense costs are large tracts of land that it supplies rent-free for U.S. military bases. South Korea has also taken on more than 90 percent of the $11 billion cost of expanding Camp Humphreys, south of Seoul, into the largest U.S. military base outside the continental United States.
South Korea is also one of the biggest buyers of U.S. weapons. It spends 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, more than any European ally of the United States.
"The United States government realizes that Korea does a lot for our alliance and peace and stability in the region," Betts said Sunday in Seoul. "We are very pleased our consultations resulted in agreement that will strengthen transparency and deepen our cooperation and the alliance."
About 20 anti-U.S. activists rallied near the Foreign Ministry building in Seoul on Sunday, chanting slogans including, "No more money for U.S. troops." No violence was reported.
The U.S. military arrived in South Korea to disarm Japan, which colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910-45, after its World War II defeat. Most U.S. troops were withdrawn in 1949, but they returned the next year to fight alongside South Korea in the 1950-1953 Korean War.
The U.S. military command was established in 1957, when South Korea was a largely agrarian country. The U.S. military presence in South Korea is a symbol of the countries' alliance but also is a source of long-running anti-American sentiments.
South Korea began paying for the U.S. military deployment in the early 1990s, after rebuilding its economy. As it has transformed into a global trading power, South Korea's contribution to covering the cost of U.S. troops has increased along with its defense budget.
South Korean ruling party lawmaker Song Young-gil said he expected the United States to push harder for another increase in the next round of negotiations, so that Trump could declare a "win" ahead of elections in 2020.
"The way Washington views the alliance has changed since Trump took office," he said. "With Trump's isolationist pursuits, the United States is not taking the role of global policeman anymore."
Information for this article was contributed by Hyung-jin Kim, Chang Yong Jun and Lee Jin-man of The Associated Press; by Choe Sang-Hun of The New York Times; and by Simon Denyer and Min Joo Kim of The Washington Post.
A Section on 02/11/2019
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