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Price tag for US troops in South Korea looms over high-stakes trip

Kanga Kong, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

SEOUL, South Korea -- Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrives in South Korea Thursday to a host of strains on one of America's most important military alliances, including a demand from President Donald Trump to pay about five times more to host U.S. troops.

Esper's high-stakes mission -- the start of an eight-day trip through Asia -- begins with his arrival in Seoul. Its results could determine how well the Trump administration can keep allies Japan and South Korea together as they face threats from the likes of North Korea, and whether other countries hosting U.S. troops will face Trump's pressure to pay far more to keep doing so.

The Pentagon boss is also facing a Nov. 23 deadline for South Korea letting expire an intelligence pact with Japan reached three years ago that was seen as a breakthrough in getting the frequent adversaries to cooperate independently of the U.S. Meanwhile, North Korea has given Trump until the end of the year to sweeten his offer for Pyongyang's nuclear disarmament or risk it ratcheting up security risks to new levels.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in's government has tried to play down any differences with Trump, who holds the cards on Moon's key policy of seeking rapprochement with North Korea. Seoul has also reiterated its plans to terminate the intelligence-sharing pact, a move the U.S. says could hurt it, South Korea and Japan.

"If Moon says 'no' to the issues of cost sharing and the intelligence pact and a compromise is not reached, then not only would the alliance plummet, but the Korean Peninsula could be hit with grave security consequences," said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser for Northeast Asia and nuclear policy at the International Crisis Group.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters en route to Asia that "it's clearly in China's interest and in North Korea's interest to separate South Korea from Japan." He is set to join Esper, who will also visit Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, in Seoul.

But as a national election approaches for parliament in April, Moon risks alienating his progressive base if he is seen as giving away too much to Trump -- especially after South Korea in October said it would abandon its developing-nation privileges at the World Trade Organization following charges by the Trump administration that it was taking advantage of the status.

"We don't think the termination would weaken the alliance with the U.S.," a presidential Blue House official who asked not to be identified told reporters last week. Moon's government has placed responsibility for its move on Japan, saying it won't bend unless Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government rolls back export restrictions it put in place a few months ago as relations between the neighbors plummeted.

 

When it comes to troop funding, Japan may find itself inescapably linked to what happens in South Korea.

Esper lands in Seoul with Trump demanding South Korea pay about $5 billion for the privilege of hosting U.S. troops, about five times more than current levels. The price tag originated with the White House, according to people familiar with the matter, and administration officials justify it by saying it reflects the costs South Korea would incur if it takes operational control of combined U.S.-South Korean forces in the case of a conflict.

Japan and the U.S. reached a five-year deal in 2016 in which Tokyo bears costs for local staff, utilities and training relocation. Japan is set to pay $1.8 billion this year, although the U.S. does not publish costs of maintaining the bases. Some experts say it's probably cheaper for the U.S. to keep its troops in Japan than to bring them home.

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