Settlement on Defense Expenditure Negotiations … US-South Korea Alliance Must Be Fixed First

It is said that South Korea and the U.S., which have been at odds over the budget for the U.S. armed forces in South Korea, have reached a tentative agreement. The two sides have reportedly decided to increase the effective period of the Special Measures Agreement, which was temporarily applied for one year to “multi-year,” while the size of the contribution has also been significantly lowered from the $3 billion to $4 billion requested by the U.S. The outcome of the negotiation was generally satisfactory. The delayed conclusion of the deal put South Korean workers in the U.S. armed forces in South Korea on unpaid leave, but fortunately the conflict was settled rather than prolonged.

The negotiation was reached because the gap between the two sides, which was the biggest issue, narrowed in terms of the total amount of the contribution. In the negotiations that started last September, the U.S. proposed that South Korea contribute $5 billion, more than five times the previous year’s contribution, but lowered it to $4 billion. Nevertheless, it was a big difference from South Korea’s plan for a 10% increase. Negotiations increased as the United States drastically reduced its demand last week. The U.S. changed its position dramatically, due to the spread of COVID-19 in its own country. U.S. President Donald Trump called President Moon Jae-in on March 24 to request medical equipment to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Trump must have wanted to reduce external conflict factors as much as possible to focus on the quarantine.

The unprecedented difficulty in the negotiations was due to Trump’s demand for excessive contributions. Another problem is that the U.S. has taken South Korean workers in the U.S. military as pawns for negotiation. However, we also need to look back on whether our government handled it wisely. Even if the contribution was raised to some extent, it was necessary to take a strategic countermeasure by resolving the “security shackles,” such as the abolition of the U.S.-South Korea missile guidelines. Nevertheless, the government only responded in a simple-minded manner that made financial experts the chief negotiators.

Amid COVID-19, the situation on the South Korean Peninsula is unstable. North Korea fired nine short-range projectiles last month alone, but the joint U.S.-South Korea drills have been suspended. The U.S.-South Korea alliance is a key shield to our security. The weakening of security should be prevented no matter what. The government should quickly complete the follow-up procedures, including ratification by the National Assembly, to fill the gaps between the U.S.-South Korea alliance and establish the security position immediately. The revision of the Status of Forces Agreement labor clause should also prevent the recurrence of unpaid leave for South Korean workers in the U.S. armed forces. There should be no more cracks in the U.S.-South Korea alliance over money.

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