South Korea Agreed To Pay More For US Troops To Avoid Higher Defense Spending
Seoul agreed to demands from Washington to share more of the cost for maintaining the US forces stationed in South Korea because the option remains cheaper than boosting its own defense spending to cover the deterrence capabilities the US military presence offers, experts told Sputnik
On Sunday, top negotiators from South Korea and the United States signed a new agreement on the cost-sharing plan for keeping the US armed forces on the Korean Peninsula, which offers deterrence to possible military aggression from North Korea.
Under the new deal, South Korea agreed to increase its contribution to the United States Forces Korea (USFK) to $923 million in 2019, up from the $830 million Seoul provided in 2018. Unlike the previous five-year agreement between the two countries, the new agreement is only effective for one year, which means both sides will need to return to the negotiating table in a few months to resume talks on the matter.
Since taking office two years ago, US President Donald Trump has always demanded that South Korea increase its share of the cost of the US military presence in the country. Although the new deal failed to reach the $1.6 billion per year target Trump wanted, South Korea agreed to increase its contribution to the USFK by about 11.2 percent.
Political analysts pointed out that South Korea probably chose to offer concessions to the United States under the new deal to avoid facing defense budget hikes in the event Seoul needed to boost its own deterrence capabilities in case failed negotiations lead to the withdraw of the USFK.
"I think the calculus has to be, with the marginal increases demanded by the United States, what kind of cost South Korea will have to pick up if there's a proportional reduction of US troops presence on the Korean Peninsula or a complete withdraw. South Korea has to think about the cost involved in keeping the deterrence at the level they would like, while the threat is clearly present. If the cost of increasing the defense spending to match whatever firepower the US forces were able to provide on the Korean Peninsula is larger than the increase [in cost-sharing], it makes no mathematical sense for South Korea to not contribute more to the cost-sharing agreement," James Kim, an international relations expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, told Sputnik.
"What would it take for the threat level to change? That depends how quickly the denuclearization talks move forward.
I don't think it's about the freezing of North Korea's nuclear programs. It's about North Korea having about six nuclear weapons, regardless whether they freeze the production of new weapons or not. What kind of capabilities you have to match that? Can you deter any future aggressions? Given that we don't have any changes on the balance of capabilities here, if anything, the threat level has increased. It makes it very difficult for the Moon administration to argue that we can cut back on our defense spending," he said.
Despite North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's pledges to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula during his meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump last year, Pyongyang has not offered a concrete road map to remove its existing nuclear capabilities.
Other South Korean analysts suggested that Seoul would probably still need to rely on the military alliance with the United States, even if the military threats from North Korea had been greatly reduced.
"Let's say the threat from North Korea is gone; does that really justify the elimination of the military alliance with the United States? We're surrounded by two nuclear powers, China and Russia. And Japan also has capabilities to develop nuclear weapons, if they made up their minds to. The majority of the experts and pundits in South Korea view the military alliance with the United States as a necessity to protect our security interests," Kim Jae-chun, an international relations professor at Sogang University in Seoul and a former South Korean government adviser, told Sputnik.
At the same time, the expert believed Seoul could use the same logic as leverage when negotiating the terms of future cost-sharing agreements with the United States, which also needs the military alliance with South Korea as well as the deployment of the USFK as part of its strategy to contain China.
"The United States has never openly stated that the presence of the USFK in South Korea carries the purpose of containing China. But US foreign policy makers view containing China as one of the objectives of keeping the USFK in South Korea. The nature of the negotiations between South Korea and the United States is similar to 'a chicken game' to a certain extend. If threats from North Korea dissipate, the Moon administration could say: well, now the North Korea threat is gone, there's no reason for USFK to stay in South Korea," he said.
Trump has announced he will meet with Kim for a second summit in Vietnam on February 27-28. The result of the summit in Vietnam would have a significant impact on future cost-sharing negotiations between South Korea and the United States, the expert added.