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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on April 3)

All News 06:59 April 03, 2020

End of bizarre deal
Defense cost talks leave deep scars in alliance

South Korea and the United States have finally reached an agreement on how much Seoul should pay this year for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

In the first place, it is nice to see an end to the bizarre negotiations. Although there has not been an announcement yet on the details of the agreement, it is undeniable that the deal, whatever the outcome, has left deep scars in the decades-old alliance. The talks are over, but doubts will remain among many South Koreans about the true meaning of the alliance.

The Donald Trump administration's "extortionate" demand for a near fivefold increase to $5 billion per year in the initial stages of the negotiations was shocking enough to draw a huge backlash from the South Korean people. And on Wednesday, the USFK went ahead with a plan to place thousands of Korean workers on unpaid leave for an indefinite period of time, citing the lapse of the previous Special Measures Agreement, which governs the cost-sharing issue. Given the employees have worked for the USFK for many years and South Korea had demanded separate negotiations on how to protect the workers facing furloughs, the U.S. measure was unilateral, irresponsible ― and cruel. It is quite natural to feel the U.S. had taken the Korean workers hostage to pressure Seoul to pay more.

For its part, it is important for the South Korean government to prevent the U.S. from using the Korean workers at U.S. bases as a "bargaining tool" in future negotiations. In a notice to the furloughed workers, USFK Commander Gen. Robert Abrams called them "vital to our mission and the Korea-U.S. alliance," saying he will do his best to address the "heartbreaking" situation. But in fact, during the latest and seventh round of talks last month, South Korea proposed concluding a separate agreement to first address the wage issue, but the U.S. rejected the idea over concerns about any further delay of a comprehensive cost-sharing deal.

It was right for the South Korean defense ministry to voice regret over the forced furloughs, vowing to come up with support measures for the affected workers, such as extending emergency loans, and pushing for a special law aimed at improving their job security.

Given the manner the Trump administration has handled the defense cost issue involving South Korea, we cannot help but partly sympathize with North Korean propaganda website Ryomyong's claim, Wednesday, that the furloughs of Korean USFK employees was a result of Seoul's "submissive" posture toward Washington. There is no denying that many South Koreans feel this way. Even U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, accused President Trump in an online statement over the furloughs, saying he is "extorting" allies at a time when closer collaboration is needed in combating the spread of the new coronavirus.

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