By Jung Da-min – The Korea Times
Issues surrounding the alliance between South Korea and the United States have recently come under spotlight as the two countries are facing an end-of-the year deadline in negotiations for the 11th Special Measures Agreement (SMA) on sharing the cost for the stationing of the United States Forces Korea (USFK).
After the first and second round of negotiations were held in Seoul and Honolulu in September and October respectively, the third round is set to be held in the Korean capital this month.
While Washington wants to increase Seoul’s defense cost-sharing payment, allegedly by five to six times to around $5 billion (around 5.82 trillion won) from the 1.04 trillion won agreed on in the 10th SMA for this year, public opinion in South Korea is against such a “sharp” increase.
Concerns were rising over a possible rift in the security alliance between the two countries after 17 members of a university students’ association broke into the grounds of the residence of U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris ― while two others attempted to join them ― Oct. 18, to protest U.S. pressure on the cost-sharing issue.
But U.S. political experts say there is nothing new in the U.S. demand for Seoul to pay more, adding such demands have been ubiquitous over the past decades. They noted that South Korea will have to pay more after the 11th SMA to maintain good relations with Washington.
“Cost sharing has been and will be a subject for discussion. I believe the recent agreement, with the ROK (Republic of Korea, or South Korea) paying a higher percentage of costs, appears to be an equitable resolution of this issue ― at least at this time,” Ambassador Joseph Detrani, former U.S. special envoy to the six-party talks with North Korea, told The Korea Times.
The matter of cost sharing is also linked to or entangled with other alliance issues including the return of U.S. forces bases to the government, the transfer of wartime operational control of Korean troops (OPCON) and the role of the future South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) and the United Nations Command (UNC) after the transfer.
Cheong Wa Dae’s announcement calling for the faster return of 26 U.S. military bases to the government has raised speculation that it wants to use the issue as a leverage to reduce the cost-sharing load, though the presidential office has dismissed such views.
The return of the military installations is accompanied by the issue of sharing the cost for cleaning up the local environment around them as the government is currently shouldering this.
Controversy surrounding transfer of OPCON
There seems to be another layer of “conflict” between the two countries over the transfer of OPCON, which the Moon Jae-in administration is pushing forward so as to complete it within Moon’s tenure, which ends 2022.
According to recent media reports citing defense officials, the United States has expressed its hope to revise a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the U.S. and South Korea over crisis management by their allied militaries, especially in preparation for the days after the transfer of OPCON. The MOU reportedly contains guidelines for the roles of the CFC, UNC and USFK in contingency situations.
While the current MOU states that the scope of crisis management is for contingency situations “of the Korean Peninsula,” the U.S. allegedly wants to expand it to include other such situations “of the U.S.”
Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo commented during a meeting of the National Assembly National Defense Committee, Nov. 4, that the two countries will be discussing this based on the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of Korea and the United States of America, a symbolic military treaty signed in 1953.
“I cannot talk about the details of the negotiations but we will resolve current issues based on this treaty as you all know,” Jeong said.
Ministry of National Defense spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said during a regular press briefing, Oct. 29., the South Korean and U.S. militaries were closely cooperating on the transfer of OPCON while reviewing “various possibilities.”
But Choi said this does not mean the South Korean military will be sending troops from the future South Korea-U.S. CFC to other overseas troubled regions at the U.S. request after the OPCON transfer, as stated in some media reports.
“South Korea and the United States are closely coordinating on various issues to maintain a strong defense of South Korea under the strong South Korea-U.S. alliance after the transfer of OPCON is completed,” Choi said. “I have nothing to say about other hypothetical situations.”
Some South Korean military watchers, however, have expressed concern that the U.S. might want to wield more influence over the South Korean military even after the OPCON transfer.
Adding to the concerns surrounding a possible rift in alliance is Washington’s pressure on Seoul to renew a military information-sharing pact with Japan, the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA.
While ranking U.S. level officials have called on the Moon administration to renew the pact for its own good and trilateral security cooperation among the U.S., South Korea and Japan, some South Koreans call the U.S. request “too much,” saying it was not willing to understand the reason behind the decision to end it.
The government’s decision not to renew the GSOMIA came after Japan removed South Korea from its whitelist of countries getting preferential treatment in trade, citing “security” reasons. South Korea viewed this as a retaliatory action against its Supreme Court’s decisions last year that ordered Japanese firms to compensate surviving South Korean victims forced to work for them during Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of the peninsula.
Issues surrounding the South Korea-U.S. alliance are expected to be discussed during the annual Republic of Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), a ministerial dialogue held alternately in Seoul and Washington. The 51st SCM is set to be held in the South Korean capital, Nov. 15.