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Trump's demand that South Korea pay more for US troops leads to impasse

David S. Cloud and Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- South Korea is resisting a Trump administration demand for sharply higher payments to defray the cost of basing U.S. forces on its territory, raising fears that President Donald Trump might threaten a troop drawdown at a time of sensitive diplomacy on the Korean peninsula.

U.S. negotiators have sought a 50 percent increase in Seoul's annual payment, which last year was about $830 million, or about half of the estimated cost of hosting 28,500 U.S. troops, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the discussions.

The U.S. stance reflects Trump's view that U.S. allies have taken advantage of American military protection for decades -- a view resented by many South Korean officials, who say they already pay more to the U.S. than almost any other American ally except Japan.

Talks that began last March on a five-year funding agreement were suspended after negotiators did not agree on a new by the end of 2018, when the last agreement expired.

South Korea, which initially called for adjusting annual payments only to account for inflation, is expected to make a counteroffer this month, but it is unlikely to satisfy the White House, U.S. officials said.

"The Koreans want to keep the status quo," said one U.S. official who discussed the deliberations on the condition of anonymity. "But the president had made clear, not just to Korea but to other allies, that the status quo won't do."

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The standoff is straining the long-standing alliance as Trump plans a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to renew the U.S. push for elimination of Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in is pursuing his own rapprochement with Kim.

South Korea in anxious about a potential withdrawal of U.S. troops if an agreement can't be reached, and umbrage over hardest bargaining from its closest ally since the Korean War, which ended 66 years ago.

"If it was reasonable, we'd go along," said Song Young-gil, a member of the National Assembly. "But the Trumpian way of ... accusing us of free riding -- we can't cave to that. ... Whether it's Korean money or American money, it's taxpayer funds."

Song, who belongs to the same party as Moon and supports engagement with North Korea, said he believed that threats to remove U.S. troops are a negotiating tactic and would not happen given America's broader strategic interests in northeast Asia.

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