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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Dec. 11)

All News 07:00 December 11, 2018

Undue US demand
South Korea is not 'free rider' in defense alliance

U.S. President Donald Trump is apparently putting stronger pressure on South Korea to contribute a bigger share of defense costs for the upkeep of American troops stationed here. Such pressure should not come as a surprise given that Trump has described Korea as a "free rider" in the bilateral defense alliance since he hit the campaign trail in 2016.

But a recent report by the Wall Street Journal shows how far Trump went in asking for Korea to pay more for hosting U.S. forces. Citing sources familiar with the ongoing defense cost sharing talks between the two countries, the journal reported Friday that Trump wants Seoul to pay roughly double the current amount, raising it to $1.6 billion every year.

If the story is true, the U.S. president is certainly seeking to get the South to foot the entire bill. Currently Seoul pays 960 billion won ($854 million) per year for the stationing of 28,500 U.S. troops here. The sum is more than half the total cost of $1.6 billion. The journal also quoted other sources as saying the Trump administration is pushing for a 50 percent increase to about $1.2 billion.

The U.S. side has yet to confirm the journal's report. Yet what is certain is that the Trump government is bent on having Korea shoulder a far greater share of the defense cost. And we have to pay more heed to such a report because it came right before the two countries hold the 10th round of Special Measures Agreement (SMA) talks in Seoul from Dec. 11 to 13 to reach a new agreement on defense cost-sharing.

Local military experts express concern that excessive U.S. demands for Korea's burden sharing will make it difficult for both sides to narrow their differences before the present agreement expires at the end of this month. They point out President Moon Jae-in cannot afford to accommodate such demands because Seoul now makes sufficient payment.

The Trump administration should better recognize the strategic importance of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) not only for the defense of South Korea against North Korean military threats, but also for U.S. security interests in East Asia. The U.S. focus on getting Seoul to pay more could run the risk of overlooking mutual interests and undermining the traditionally strong alliance between the two.

In this regard, the Moon administration needs to make more efforts to convince the U.S. leadership that South Korea has done enough to share the costs of the USFK presence here since 1991 when the host country began to pay. Seoul paid as much as $13 billion to construct Camp Humphreys, the largest overseas U.S. military base, for the relocation of U.S. troops stationed in Seoul and border areas.

President Trump should no longer regard South Korea as a "free rider" in the defense of its territory. He must see the Asian ally as an important partner for protecting peace and stability in the region. Only then can the two countries take a fair share of the cost.

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