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America and South Korea Must Negotiate a Fair Extension of the SMA

“It is in the interest of the U.S. and South Korea to negotiate a fair extension of the SMA that does not raise accusations among the Korean population that the U.S. is a mercenary force in their country while also addressing concerns of the U.S. that its allies shoulder as much of their own defense burden as possible.”


The National Interest  |  By Thomas Byrne Walter L. Sharp

Contentious talks to renew the U.S.-South Korea military cost-sharing agreement threatens to strain an over six-decade alliance, one that advances key American interests and serves as the cornerstone of peace and security in one of the world’s most important regions. 

This comes at a critical time with North Korea ramping up its conventional weapons threats to South Korea and Japan. Talks this week in Seoul ended prematurely when the U.S. cut short negotiations arguing that the South Koreas “were not responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden-sharing,” while the South cited “quite a big difference in principle.”

Since 1991 the U.S. and South Korea have negotiated multiyear Special Measures Agreements (SMA) that govern how costs are shared for the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in Korea. When the previous agreement expired at the end of 2018, talks proved so difficult that a makeshift one-year agreement was all that could be managed. Nonetheless, South Korea agreed to raise its contribution 8.2% to KRW 1.04 trillion (almost $900 million), which covers about 50% of local basing costs, a bottom-line target for the U.S. last year.

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris has stated that “Korea, like other allies, can and should do more.”  In one regard Ambassador Harris is right: the cost of deterring North Korea’s relentless weapons build-up continually increases the cost of common defense.

But the Korean press has reported that the U.S. “ask” is for South Korea to increase its annual contribution five-fold (to nearly $5 billion), while the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs is seeking a “reasonable and equitable” increase. Closing such a large gap would be extremely challenging politically for the South.  And it is worth noting that some in Congress, such as U.S. Senator Jack Reed, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, have praised South Korea’s contribution.

Are the U.S. demands fair or are they mercenary? And is South Korea a “free rider,” a country that scrimps on its own defense spending and overly depends on allies?  Let’s look at how South Korea measures up.

First, South Korea’s numbers show that it is not shirking its defense burden. It spent 2.6 % of GDP in 2018 on its defense budget, and plans to spend 2.9% by 2022. That far outpaces the NATO benchmark of 2% and eclipses the levels spent by Germany, 1.2%, and Japan, 0.9% (the U.S was 3.2%). 

Second, South Korea is the third-largest purchaser of military goods from the U.S. –  $6.7 billion from 2008 to 2017 – and it does not seek subsidies from U.S. taxpayers for its purchases, unlike Israel and Egypt. South Korea is ramping up its defense spending to localize its defense capability and raise its military posture. 

Third, South Korea shouldered around 90% of the $11 billion capital expenditure for the consolidation of U.S. bases south of the Han River to Camp Humphreys, forming America’s “largest power projection platform in the Pacific,” according to the Defense Department. And South Korea does not charge rent. 

Moreover, South Korea has demonstrated that it is a dependable ally supporting U.S. military actions in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq in the past and most recently agreeing to a U.S. request to send a naval destroyer to guard merchant ships in the Strait of Hormuz.

Even though the evidence shows that South Korea is not a “free rider,” does that alone justify maintaining the alliance?  

Yes. Much is at stake in maintaining global order. The 66-year U.S.-South Korea alliance has kept the peace and maintained geopolitical conditions for mutual prosperity. South Korea is America’s sixth-largest trade partner and its major corporations are increasingly investing in the U.S, creating high-paying jobs for American workers. A prosperous South Korea is good for America. 

It is in the interest of the U.S. and South Korea to negotiate a fair extension of the SMA that does not raise accusations among the Korean population that the U.S. is a mercenary force in their country while also addressing concerns of the U.S. that its allies shoulder as much of their own defense burden as possible. Polling shows that Korea’s highly favorable perception of the U.S. has taken a big hit. And the Korean government is hyper-sensitive to public opinion. 

There is too much at stake for the U.S. to ask for too much, and thus risk alienating a responsible and reliable ally, and for South Korea to not pay its fair share given the wealth that Korea has achieved thanks to the security ensured by the U.S. military presence. Creative negotiations could strengthen, not weaken, the alliance.

At a congressional hearing in July, members of Congress expressed concern that the failure of the SMA talks could lead to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea, a result China and Russia would welcome. That would probably be the death knell of the alliance.

Thomas Byrne is President and CEO of The Korea Society, and former Asia Pacific/Middle East Regional Manager at Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group. 

General (Ret) Walter L. Sharp is former UNC/CFC/USFK Commander, a Director of The Korea Society and the current Chairman of the Korea Defense Veterans Association.

Download: America and South Korea Must Negotiate a Fair Extension of the SMA – National Interest – Byrne and Sharp

Article Link: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/korea-watch/america-and-south-korea-must-negotiate-fair-extension-sma-97552

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Japan-South Korea tensions challenge postwar order

FT Financial Times

Opinion South Korea Politics & Policy

Yoichi Funabashi August 29, 2019

 

The trade and diplomatic dispute between Japan and South Korea has escalated sharply in recent days. On Wednesday, Tokyo officially struck South Korea from its export control “white list” of friendly countries, less than a week after Seoul announced it would terminate their intelligence-sharing agreement. Tokyo had previously restricted the export of three chemicals to South Korea in July.

It is clear that these countries no longer see each other as like-minded peers worthy of mutual trust. The current meltdown was triggered last year, when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies to compensate Korean individuals for their forced labour during the Japanese occupation in the second world war.

Japan contends the issue was settled decades earlier via treaty. The court decision has opened a Pandora’s box and could lead to a slew of disputes that would present a fundamental challenge to the peace and security of north-east Asia and the postwar order.

Washington, meanwhile, has failed to recognize the gravity of the crisis. While previous US administrations tried to bring its two most important east Asian allies closer together, president Donald Trump’s team has refused to pick up the baton.

On a visit to Tokyo in July, national security adviser John Bolton made clear that the US does not intend to get involved in the spat. A Japanese government official told me that he concluded by wishing Tokyo “good luck”.

As the crisis unfolds, there are three points that leaders in Tokyo, Seoul and Washington would do well to keep in mind. First, Tokyo needs to realise that it has both an interest in maintaining global supply chains and a responsibility to do so. Although Japan may have legitimate concern about sales of semiconductor components to undesirable countries, its government must ensure that export control regulations are implemented fairly and transparently.

The combination of Japanese materials and Korean prowess in semiconductors is a strength that should be further harnessed, not damaged. Preventing South Korea from importing Japanese chemicals critical for the semiconductor industry does exactly the wrong thing. A disruption of those supply chains would inadvertently present China with a chance to gain a stronger foothold in key technologies. Japan must recognize that South Korea is a partner, not a rival.

Second, Seoul will need to find an appropriate balance between respecting the decision of its courts, and honouring international law by upholding the 1965 Japan- South Korea normalisation agreements, which were crafted in the spirit of the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty that ended the Allied occupation of Japan.

These postwar treaties sought to avoid the mistakes made after the first world war when the Treaty of Versailles imposed punishing reparations on Germany. The agreements deliberately waived future compensation claims against Japan in an attempt to avoid a new, dangerous cycle of revenge. As such, they are the foundation of the postwar international order.

South Korea should reflect on the way other democracies have handled such competing obligations. Back in 2000, the US Department of Justice intervened in an American court case brought by US prisoners of war who sought compensation for being forced to perform labour in Japan. Government lawyers argued that the POW lawsuits were barred by the San Francisco peace treaty and that agreement would not have been reached if it had allowed for future compensation claims.

Finally, the US needs to decide on — and follow — a more coherent policy toward its allies. Mr Trump’s constant questioning of the value of the US alliances with Japan and South Korea has sparked fears within these countries of an American military withdrawal from north-east Asia.

In the early days of the post-cold war era, voices both in the US and among its allies called in to question the value of these international arrangements. But the US stood behind them and defended their value. Joseph Nye, a former defence department official and Harvard professor put it this way in a 1995 strategy report: “Security is like oxygen: you do not tend to notice it until you begin to lose it . . . The American security presence has helped provide this ‘oxygen’ for east Asian development.”

As that oxygen withers away, Asia is finding it harder to breathe. While we must continue to encourage the US to affirm its commitment to its allies, these new realities also present an opportunity. Solving the current crisis between Seoul and Tokyo will require leadership, diplomatic tactfulness, and, above all, a long breath.

The writer is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative, a think-tank

This article has been amended to make clear that South Korea was not a party to the 1951 San Francisco treaty.

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