South Korea has signed a new deal with the United States on how much Seoul should pay for the US military presence on its soil after a previous deal lapsed amid President Donald Trump’s call for Seoul to pay more.
The new deal, signed on Sunday, awaiting parliament approval in Seoul, would boost South Korea’s contribution from 960 billion ($850m) won in 2018 to 1.03 trillion won ($890m).
Unlike past agreements, which lasted for five years, this one is scheduled to expire in a year, potentially forcing both sides back to the bargaining table within months.
“It has been a very long process, but ultimately a very successful process,” South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters before another official from the foreign ministry initialled the agreement.
While acknowledging lingering domestic criticism of the new deal and the need for parliamentary approval, Kang said the response had “been positive so far”.
Timothy Betts, US State Department senior adviser for security negotiations and agreements, met Kang before signing the agreement and told reporters the money represented a small but important part of South Korea’s support for the alliance.
“The United States government realises that South Korea does a lot for our alliance and for peace and stability in this region,” said Betts.
Sharing the bill
About 28,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea, where the US has maintained a military presence since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The allies struggled to reach a breakthrough despite 10 rounds of talks since March, amid Trump’s repeated calls for a sharp increase in South Korea’s contribution.
South Korean officials have said they had sought to limit its burden to 1 trillion won ($889.7m) and make the accord valid for at least three years.
Last month, a senior South Korean ruling party legislator said negotiations were deadlocked after the US made a “sudden, unacceptable” demand that Seoul pay more than 1.4 trillion won ($1.2bn) per year.
But both sides worked to hammer out a deal to minimise the impact of the lapse on South Korean workers on US military bases, and focus on nuclear talks ahead of a second US-North Korea summit, Seoul officials said.
In his annual State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, Trump said he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on February 27-28 in Vietnam, following their unprecedented meeting in June 2018 in Singapore.
After last year’s summit, Trump announced a halt to joint military exercises with South Korea, saying they were expensive and paid for mostly by the US.
Major joint exercises have been suspended, but some small-scale drills have continued, earning rebukes from North Korea’s state media in recent months.
Seoul contributes around 70 percent to cover the salaries of some 8,700 South Korean employees who provide administrative, technical and other services for the US military.
Late last year, the US military warned Korean workers on its bases they might be put on leave from mid-April if no deal was agreed.