Top Democrats push Trump administration on lapsed cost-sharing deal with South Korea

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Four top Democrats are raising “serious concerns” about the Trump administration not reaching a cost-sharing agreement with South Korea for U.S. troops based there.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday, the Democrats expressed their “disappointment that the administration has failed to conclude negotiations over a Special Measures Agreement (SMA) between the United States and the Republic of Korea over four months after the expiration of the prior agreement.”

“We know that you appreciate the critical importance of the U.S.-Korea alliance,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) wrote. “It is an alliance forged in the blood of shared sacrifice, and a healthy, strong, and robust alliance with the Republic of Korea is the linchpin for U.S. national security interests in the Indo-Pacific.”

The last cost-sharing deal, known as the Special Measures Agreement, lapsed Dec. 31 after President Trump initially sought a South Korean contribution of about $5 billion, or about 400 percent more than what Seoul paid in the now-expired agreement. Both sides say the administration’s demands have since softened, but a new deal has yet to be reached.

At the beginning of the month, the U.S. military furloughed thousands of South Korean workers at its bases on the peninsula due to the lack of an agreement.

On Friday, Reuters reported that South Korea recently offered to increase its payment by 13 percent from the previous deal, but Trump rejected the offer.

“It is our understanding that the Republic of Korea recently made a significant offer to the United States to resolve the impasse in negotiations and conclude an agreement,” the Democrats wrote in their letter Wednesday. “However, it appears that the White House rejected the offer as well as a proposal to mitigate the impact of lapsed funding.”

Asked about the 13 percent offer at a Pentagon briefing Tuesday, Esper deferred comment to the State Department, but reiterated his stance that South Korea “can and should pay more to help for our mutual defense and their specific defense.”

“South Korea is a close and trusted ally of ours, but they are a wealthy country,” Esper said.

In their letter, the Democrats said they “agree in principle” that South Korea “can and should take on additional responsibilities and meet an increased share of the burden of maintaining a robust alliance.”

“Yet, we are deeply concerned that if we are unable to reach a fair and mutually acceptable agreement on a new SMA soon, then the continued friction will erode the proper functioning of the alliance itself,” they wrote. “This could include readiness challenges and place the lives of United States service members, as well as our security interests, at increased risk. The only winners in that scenario are our adversaries. These are serious concerns that we expect you share.”

The lawmakers asked for Esper and Pompeo’s plans to reach a new agreement with South Korea, as well as their assessment on increased risks created by the impasse in negotiations, plans to mitigate those risks and potential effects from lasting mitigation efforts.

The impasse comes as the United States and South Korea are battling the coronavirus, which has threatened both nations’ military readiness by delaying exercises even as North Korea proceeds apace with missile tests.

North Korea’s latest test came Tuesday, but Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said he did not find that one “particularly provocative.” South Korea said the test appeared to involve cruise missiles, which North Korea is not banned from having by the United Nations Security Council.

Tags Adam Smith Bob Menendez Donald Trump Eliot Engel Jack Reed Mark Esper Mike Pompeo

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